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More bobsledding fun

15 Jan 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

The continuation of my diary from the Lucas Oil Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge presented by Whelen Engineering in chilly Lake Placid, N.Y.

Now in its fifth year, the event helps raise funds to build quality bobsleds for the U.S. Olympic team, which until the early 2000s was racing in cast-off sleds from European teams. According to literature at the event, NASCAR legend Bodine joined forces with auto racing designer Bob Cuneo of Chassis Dynamics in Oxford, Conn., to create made-in-America bobsleds for the United States men's and women's national teams. Since 2002, the Bo-Dyn effort has produced one Olympic gold medal, two silver medals, and a bronze. Additionally, U.S. team member Steve Holcomb ended a 50-year world-championship drought when he drove his four-man Bo-Dyn sled to the world title in Lake Placid last February. The men's and women's squads have claimed numerous World Cup medals this season -- five gold medals among them -- in the run-up to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. 

OK, now where was I? Oh yes, after fun-filled days of travel Thursday and Friday, some practice for the drivers Friday and a bobsled ride for me, we head into Saturday and qualifying for Sunday's big show.

SATURDAY

Compare this with yesterday's shot. What a change in the weather.

8 a.m.: The alarm clock goes off, but damned if I can talk my freezing, jet-lagged butt out of bed. Sledding practice is supposed to start at 9 a.m., and it's clear I'm not going to make that, but I need to be there by noon (seems manageable, no?) to get my second bobsled ride. Hey, I'm all about the team. It's a glorious sunny day – Friday's clouded-over skies and snow are gone, replaced by a crystal-clear, sunny sky -- but somehow it's colder than Friday. The thermometer built into the mirror of the rental reads 0 degrees. That's Fahrenheit, folks.

11 a.m.: In motor racing, drivers try to "keep the shiny side up" – that being the paint and the chrome -- but in sledding, keeping it upright is referred, somewhat paradoxically to us, as "keeping the shiny side down," referring to the polished bottoms of the sled's runners. Weird. Apparently, though, there's some confusion here as four drivers get their sleds upside down on the course in practice, including three of the four drag racers. 

Assessing the damage to Morgan Lucas' sled. Note the paint damage on top of the cowl from his long, upside-down slide.

Morgan Lucas does it twice, on his first and third of four passes, and Top Fuel teammate Shawn Langdon and Melanie Troxel also go on their heads. What's especially painful about flipping over is that it usually occurs as the result of trying to exit Shady 2 (turn 6 of 15 on their shortened course), so you slide down the rest of the hill trying to tuck yourself into the sled (easier for the driver than the brakeperson). But that's just the half of it. The sleds usually don't slide all the way to the finish line because the last two turns (18 and 19, the exit to The Heart) and the run to the finish line are uphill, so the hapless drivers end up sliding back down the course several hundred feet before the sled grinds to a halt. Philip Morris also gets on his head, meaning that six of the 10 drivers in competition have flipped so far. They won’t be the last. Their sleds and helmet tops bear evidence of the long slide.

Despite their flips, the drag racers seem unfazed. They acknowledge to me that nothing they've ever done prepared them for this and that it's as challenging, if not more so, than their usual rides and feels just about as fast despite them reaching speeds of "just" 60 mph.

Noon: Practice is over, and everyone gets a sheet with all of the split times (50 meters, exit of Turn 4, exit of Turn 9, exit of Turn 12, exit of Turn 14, and finish) so they can see where they need to improve. Some drivers are fast and clean up top, and others, like Langdon and Troxel, are better in the bottom part of the course.

The Lucas family, trying to stay warm in the Start 3 warming hut.

Noon means lunchtime and a large line for rides. This time we'll be riding the four-person sled, a virtual bus compared to the two-person sled I rode Friday, but the extra weight – two passengers and a driver and brakeperson, the latter Lake Placid regulars who give tourist rides -- should mean faster speeds. I spent the night memorizing the course so that I could relate it better for my column next week in National DRAGSTER, tracing in my mind the exit from Shady 2, the run through the three quick turns of the Labyrinth and on to Benham's Bend, a nearly 90-degree right. From there, you hope to slice a straight line through the chicane to have speed for the nearly 180-degree left-turn Turn 17 (marked by the huge JEGS logo) that marks the entrance to The Heart. From there, it's a quick right through 18 (the middle of The Heart), then another sweeping left-hander to exit The Heart and on to the finish line.

1:30 p.m.: I told you it was a long line, but finally we are, as the familiar voice of course announcer Kim Luther calls out (as she does on each run) "Sled in the track," the bodsledding equivalent of "And they're off." By Benham's Bend, we have enough speed to be up on the bank, and our driver threads the chicane beautifully and puts us high onto Turn 17, the G forces sucking me down into the sled. The chill wind is again lacing through the pores on my face, but the ride is amazing and all too soon over.

2:30 p.m.: One-shot qualifying commences, and the straight-liners hold their own. Lucas Oil off-road racer Carl Renezeder, who is part of Team NHRA, is the surprise leader at 50.66, with NASCAR rookie of the year Joey Logano not far behind at 50.79. Jeg is third with a 51.03 and Morgan fourth at 51.13. Langdon is sixth (51.22) and Troxel eighth (51.48). The warming hut at the top of Start 3 provides an excellent place to watch the races as there's a TV monitor inside (plus hot chocolate!), and they pipe in Luther's turn-by-turn commentary, singing out praises of a turn well carved or noting a bad blunder.

Sure is pretty up here ...

By the end of the day, you can tell that the racers are sore from their efforts. The sleds chatter on the ice, rattling the flanks against shoulders, and the G forces are strong, and the muscles that are used to tug on the control ropes that turn the runners are different ones than they’re used to exercising. Troxel has an impressive  softball-sized bruise on her right bicep and various other aches and scrapes, but she's clearly one of the most info-hungry drivers, consulting regularly with Team USA bobsled (USA 6) driver Ethan Albrecht-Carrie, who has been brought in to help tutor the drivers. Troxel may be among the greenest of the bunch, but she has clearly caught on.

7 p.m.: The day ends after the qualifying pass, and everyone retires to their hotels and cabins to prepare for that night's benefit auction at the Crowne Plaza. Me, I do a little souvenir hunting and pick up a cool 1980 Olympic hockey team T-shirt and some T-shirts for my grandson. Later at the auction, Jeg walks away with a cool 1/8th-scale nitro-fueled RC truck at night's end. I bet he puts it to good use.

Watching the evening weather forecast and checking weather.com, they're predicting a low of minus 17 early Sunday morning, with a "warm up" to minus 8 by race time. I can hardly wait.

SUNDAY

9:45 a.m.: Somehow, I make it out of bed this morning, and we're assembled back atop the hill for opening ceremonies. It's cold, cold, cold, at or about that minus-8 number according to the ol' rearview-mirror thermometer. There's a bit of extra drama brewing for us as the renta-Jeep throws me a Check Gauges warning on the dashboard just as I reach the top of the hill ,and the oil-pressure is down on the peg. Ruh-roh, Scooby. I park it and give "Woody" the bad news.

10:30 a.m.: We're running a bit behind schedule because of TV and because we've had yet another flip. This time, it was my Friday chauffeur Burkart, who was giving Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon a ride from the top of the hill for the TV show and flipped it. I haven't seen the footage, but apparently Wheldon wasn't going to ride the sinking ship to the bottom and jettisoned himself from the sled partway down. He barely made it off the course before the sled and Burkart took him down on its backslide "up" the course.

Opening ceremonies. God bless America, indeed.

Finally, we're ready to go. The great Kate Smith, who is buried in St. Agnes Cemetery in Lake Placid, belts out her trademark "God Bless America" (via tape recording, of course), and we're ready for the first of two competitions, an Olympics-style head-to-head competition among all drivers, with the winner being the one with the lowest combined two-run time. Melanie apparently is a good student, and a consistent one. She puts together back-to-back runs of 49.67 and 49.66 for an overall time of 1:39.33, which is just a few ticks better than Jeg's 1:39.40. Jeg was quicker on run one with a 49.31 but not as consistent on run two, and it cost him. Seven-hundredths is a lifetime in drag racing, but in bobsledding, it's just a brush or two of the wall, and there's no Christmas Tree here for Jeg to make up that lost time with as he does on the quarter-mile. Melanie takes the gold, Jeg the silver, and perennial Bodine medalist Boris Said of Team NASCAR the bronze with a 1:39.69.

Melanie Troxel and brakeperson Matthew Powers didn't leave much on the table.

1:30 p.m.: After lunch and an autograph session (with the drivers, not me), it's on to the NHRA vs. NASCAR competition. The format is confusing to everyone, but eventually we figure it out. The five drivers on each team get one run. The quickest three qualify, and the slowest two are done. The quickest driver gets a bye, No. 2 races No. 3, and the winner of that races No. 1. This happens on both sides of the ladder until just one remains from each side. Geoff Bodine and Charlotte Lucas preside over the coin toss, which NHRA wins, meaning our drivers get to go first (supposedly an advantage).

That whole shooting match boils down to Melanie and Logano. Melanie qualified No. 1, Morgan No. 2, and Renezeder No. 3 on the NHRA side. My host, Jeg, is fourth, just a hundredth behind Renezeder and is disappointingly done for the weekend; Langdon also DNQs. Renezeder against Morgan is wacky as both crash and neither gets a turn (Morgan's third flip, for anyone keeping score), but Morgan advances to the final against Troxel based on his higher seed, and she ekes past him, 50.12 to 50.14.

4 p.m.: We're all cheering for Melanie to be queen of the hill again, but her 50.07 in the final falls just shy of Logano's stout 49.81, but we're all super-thrilled for her anyway. The rookie done good.

We all pile into the rental cars – oil pressure on the Jeep is shaky, down in the single digits at idle but OK at speed – and beat it to the airport, trying to warm our frozen feet and hands.

Home, James ...

5:15 p.m.: The rent-a-Jeep goes the distance – barely – and we jump out of the quickly cooling night into the jet, and we're off. By 7 p.m., we're back in Columbus and a half-hour later chowing down pizza at Tommy's, another Jeg favorite: Pepperoni pizza with the pep really crisp, garlic bread, crinkle-cut fries, and some tasty suds finish off a great evening.

10 p.m.:  No one feels much like doing anything other than hitting the hay, so it's off to bed. There's a 7 a.m. wake-up (again) for the first leg of the flight home and a lot of great memories to fall asleep to.

It truly was one of those great weekends, and I was thrilled to take part in it, thanks to Jeg and "Woody." Although intense in competition, it was great to be around our racers in a little more relaxed arena, and the time spent with Jeg, Samantha, "Woody," and Reinhart was true quality time. Lots of laughs, good food, and camaraderie.

I was super-impressed with how our drivers – especially sledding rookies Melanie and Shawn – comported themselves and drove their freezing butts off. They were great ambassadors, as were the Lucases, who clearly enjoy their support of this fine endeavor as much as anything they do. A big tip of the hat to them as well.

If they'll have me, I'll be back next year. It was that much fun.