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Dale Earnhardt Jr. ready for bobsled after retiring

August 18, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - When NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. made it known on social media earlier this summer that bobsled is one thing he'd like to try after he retires from stock car racing at the end of this season, U.S. Olympic bobsled pilot Nick Cunningham realized this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

The son of a Valvoline motor oil company salesman from Monterey, California, the 32-year-old Cunningham grew up a massive NASCAR fan idolizing Mark Martin, who drove a Valvoline Ford Taurus through the prime of his career. An admirer of Earnhardt Jr. as well, and just months removed from his first stab at stock car racing at Meridian Speedway in Idaho, Cunningham messaged Earnhardt directly.

"While everyone else is kind of retweeting his podcast," Cunningham said, "I went right to the source. And I was going to ask him, 'Hey I'd love to give you an 85-mile-per-hour trip down the Lake Placid track.' And he said 'yes.'

Article Photos

A two-man bobsled from the U.S. team makes its way down the Mount Van Hoevenberg track on Jan. 8, 2016 during a World Cup race in Lake Placid.
(News photo — Lou Reuter)

"He has to finish his career," Cunningham continued, "and I have to get through the (2018 Pyeongchang) Olympic Games, but we can see if we can get him here for a World Cup, get him in the back of a sled and kind of show him how we do things here in Lake Placid."

Cunningham spoke of this soft social media agreement between him and Earnhardt Monday evening, Aug. 14, after he hosted the inaugural Olympic Trivia Night at the Taverna restaurant on Saranac Avenue in Lake Placid.

Embedded as a familiar personality within Lake Placid's winter Olympic community, Cunningham insisted that if Earnhardt does take the front seat in a two-man sled, he'd like for it to be from the very top of Lake Placid's bobsled track at Mount Van Hoevenberg, the stateside home for USA Bobsled and Skeleton, based in Lake Placid.

"I think it'd just be fun to get Junior, put him in the front seat; I'll ride brakes," Cunningham said. "It'd be a two-man sled, I'd push him off and try to coach him up for the lower start, and let him kind of feel what it's like to have no traction and to have to do stuff and see what he says. Because someone of his caliber coming up here and testing our sport, even though he's never been a part of it, I still think we can learn something from him, and all of his knowledge."

Cunningham said he got into track and field because it was his form of racing as a youngster. That led him to a collegiate career at Boise State University in Idaho. When that was over, he felt bobsled was the next logical progression for a career centered around speed and adrenaline rushes.

Fast-forward nearly a decade, and Cunningham has competed at the last two Winter Olympic Games for the United States while also spending time as a sergeant in the New York Army National Guard. In the ensuing months, he is to compete on the bobsled World Cup circuit and next February at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which will be his last.

The Olympic year preparation hasn't stopped Cunningham from getting behind the wheel of a stock car, as part of Patriot Motorsports Group, which operates a NASCAR driver development program based in Eagle, Idaho.

"Just to see how far that can go," Cunningham said. "Starting at 32 and trying to make a NASCAR career, that's not realistic. But just to go out and get some races under my belt, and say that I was able to go out and race stock cars is not something many people can say they can do.

"It's so different," Cunningham added. "Getting the physics, getting the different braking points and what you need to do, that's all stuff I do [on the bobsled track].

"The only thing that caught me off guard was the amount of grip I had - traction. In our sport, we don't have any. I had to go real wide."

Kristen Gowdy, the U.S. bobsled team's media and marketing assistant, said Monday that the federation would just need to set up Earnhardt's ride with the state Olympic Regional Development Authority and have the NASCAR driver sign a waiver. The 2017-2018 bobsled and skeleton World Cup season kicks off Nov. 9-10 in Lake Placid, followed by races in Park City, Utah, and Whistler, British Columbia, and the team will be away from North America for a good chunk of the following months, so Gowdy said the federation is unsure when the Earnhardt ride might happen.

"But we definitely want to make it happen," she said. "I think it would be awesome for everyone involved."

"I'm going to try to see how high I can take him up there and give him as close to a real trip as we can get," Cunningham said. "And, I just - it'd be such a cool thing to kind of have him see kind of how we are working and how we are doing things.

"You don't get to that level of NASCAR and racing and not understand the physics of it and everything - the G-forces," he added. "So it'd actually be cool to talk to him about what we do on a daily basis, how it happens, find those parallels between two vastly different sports and see where the similarities are and really how many are there. And I'd be very - I think we'd all be very shocked to see how close they are."

It would be far from the first pairing of car racing and bobsledding. Formula One driver Bob Said was also a U.S. Olympic bobsled driver in 1968 and 1972, and in 1992, former NASCAR driver and 1986 Daytona 500 winner Geoff Bodine started the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project to design and build top-notch racing bobsleds in the U.S. Bo-Dyn sleds were used by teams that won gold, silver and bronze medals in the 2002 Olympics, silver in 2006, and gold and bronze in 2010.



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