NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Sledding and sliding, part 1

14 Jan 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Yeah, sure is cold and snowy out there.

Recapping my trip to Lake Placid, N.Y., for the Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge with Jeg Coughlin Jr.

3:50 p.m.: After an early flight from Ontario, our flight out of Dallas is delayed an hour and a half. It's a constant series of text messages to Scott "Woody" Woodruff, JEGS marketing manager, who's going to be waiting at Port Columbus airport, to keep him apprised of the new arrival time. It's thanks to "Woody" and his boss, Jeg Coughlin, that I'm even doing this, as they took care of all my expenses for the trip to the event, of which they are a major backer and, obviously, a competitor in.

7:15 p.m.: When we land, it's in a light snowfall. The pilot does a great job setting 'er down with just a little wiggle -- they must have had a guy installing the tire chains in the cargo hold, I reckon -- and in no time, we're into the warm terminal.

7:30 p.m.: "Woody" picks me up and safely navigates us down the snowy highways and byways in Jeg's Escalade pickup to Chile Verde, Jeg's favorite Mexican restaurant, where he, fiancée Samantha Kenny, and NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart are just finishing off a bowl of queso and chips awaiting our arrival.

9:30 p.m.: After a thoroughly stuffing (and, surprisingly for Ohio, spicy) dinner, some great company -- Jeg can be very funny, and when he and "Woody," childhood chums, get to telling old tales, it's good listening -- and with half of the BCS championship game in the books, we head back to the parking lot, where a moderate blizzard appears to be under way. Well, to this California kid, it looks like one. Actually, it's snowing pretty good.

10 p.m.: We make the 20-minute trek to Jeg's house, named River Ridge Farms, where we'll be spending the night. Turning into the long snowbank-lined driveway, there's an American flag and a Canadian flag, the latter posted by Jeg in honor of Samantha. Like everything the JEGS operation does, the place is first class all the way and designed by Jeg. It's probably the nicest house I've ever been in on beautiful grounds that are blanketed in picture-postcard snow. Kinda makes me want to open my own mail-order company.

10:15 p.m.: Samantha breaks out a a bag of Fudgee-O cookies, one of their guilty pleasures, steathily imported from Canada. "We'll start our diets Monday," she pledges for what she estimates might be the 50th time in the last year.

After watching the Crimson Tide sew up the national title against the Colt McCoy-less Longhorns, I get a tour of Jeg's "trophy room," a hallway-long collection of trophies, National DRAGSTER covers and championship profiles, photos, helmets, diecasts, and more. Dotted throughout the house, placed nicely but not boastfully, are other Wallys, including his 2008 championship Wally. After that, it's off to bed for an all-too-short night.


 head.jpg7 a.m.: We're up, and everyone is milling around, consuming their morning beverages – which for Reinhart, "Woody," and me is Diet Coke – and wolfing down a few more Fudgee-Os. We grab a few breakfast bars out of a bowl, and, right on target, we head out the door, suitcases in tow, at 7:45. Jeg, Samantha, and Reinhart hop into his Audi while we follow in the Escalade.

8:30 a.m.: After a quick drive-by of the sleek building that houses Jim Head's engineering company, we pull into the airfield on a corner of Port Columbus and start loading our bags into the Lear 45 that JEGS time-shares with other companies. It's snowing again, but within a few minutes, we're packed and ready to go and take our seats. Man, this beats the heck out of commercial travel!

deice.jpgIt's cold outside, in the teens, so we taxi forward to have our wings deiced, a two-step process that first coats the wings with orange and then green liquid -- antifreeeze of some sort, I assume -- dispensed from a fire hose from a guy aboard a moving boom. That complete, we're ready to hit the friendly skies.

9 a.m.: We're wheels up and en route! There are beverages and pastries to be consumed, joking and laughing to be done (plus snacks under the seats). We marvel at the onboard monitors that not only show current position on a map but also readouts of speed, altitude, outside temperature, and time until arrival. At the height of it all, I caught a quick glimpse of a screen that showed up at 41,000 feet, cruising at 585 mph, with an outside air temperature of minus 56 degrees. After logging hundreds of thousands of commercial miles and battling crowds and security lines and oversized seatmates with pointy elbows, man, a fella could get used to this.

Those NASCAR slowpokes ...

10:20 a.m.: As we near our destination at Adirondack Regional Airport, outside of Saranac Lake, N.Y., one of the pilots turns around to inform us that we're going to have to slow down because of air traffic ahead of us that's going much slower. We're amused to discover that it's the NASCAR contingent's plane, Rick Hendrick Racing's 40-passenger Saab turboprop. We urge the pilots to pull a NASCAR-style slingshot on them to get us in first, but he either doesn't hear or chooses to ignore us. Dang.

10:25 a.m.: We're on the ground and sizing up the entourage departing the Hendrick plane; seeing enough luggage to equip a small army, we hatch a plan to grab our luggage and book it to our waiting rental cars with hopes of beating them to the host hotel, the Crowne Royal in Lake Placid. Unfortunately, the NASCAR gang is adept at stop-and-go's, and they've arranged for a truck to haul their luggage en masse, and they're out the gate before we are.

The first thing I notice is that it is freaking cold here. My face stings even though it's only lightly snowing. There's a mildly brisk breeze, but whereas in Columbus I had worn just a fleece hoodie and not felt cold at all, here, despite a ski jacket and longjohns, I can clearly feel the cold. I pull my ski cap down over my ears and gut it out to the renta-a-ride.

The view from my hotel balcony. That's Mirror Lake in the distance.

11:15 a.m.: It's just a 12-mile trip from the airfield to Lake Placid, a charming little town on the shores of Mirror Lake (Lake Placid is smaller and not far away, but the town is built around Mirror Lake) with a quaint two-lane road between restaurants and shops selling all manner of Olympic souvenirs. I'll be back to shop later for sure. After all, it's an Olympic year! We check into the hotel and line up to sign waivers and collect our cold-weather gear. It's here that I meet Samantha's parents, Al and Carol. Al, of course, is an alcohol racer from way back and now the father of two NHRA national event winners, Samantha and her brother Jason.

There's a general sense of chaos as there aren’t enough jackets and pants to go around, at least not in all the right sizes. Nerves and stress are at fever pitch, not only among the poor ladies doing the distribution but those uneager to face the chilly temps without full gear.

1 p.m.: After unpacking, I return to the lobby to meet up with "Woody," only to find that he has left to shuttle Jeg to the bobsled run for publicity photos, so I enjoy a nice buffet-style lunch with the Kenny family while we await a new shipment of coats and pants that never arrive. Fortunately, I've packed enough snow gear of my own to get me by. Finally, we load up into the Kenny family truck and make the 6-mile ride to the bobsled course. Right next to our hotel is a place very dear to my heart, the Olympic hockey stadium that was the site of 1980's Miracle on Ice. This is the 30-anniversary of the great moment in American sports, and, like the stores, I promise I'll be back to visit later.

1:30 p.m.: We pull into the Olympic Sports Complex and are afforded official-vehicle status, meaning we can traverse the road between the bottom of the hill and the several stops along the way at our convenience rather than waiting on a shuttle. We gather and watch the photo shoot for the Challenge and then head to the top of the hill for a driver meeting and to walk of the course.

(Above) Walking the course and trying to catch up; this is between turns 5 and 6. (Below) Alan Reinhart, leading the way. The shades keep the snow and sun off the ice.
Ha! Jacket open wide, one glove off; how cold do I look? I ain't no SoCal softy!

2:20 p.m.: We strap spike-studded sandal-like devices to the bottoms of our boots for the course walk down the 20-turn run. As you can imagine, the course is nothing but a long, slippery ice tube. By the time I defer shoe-wear choice to all of the drivers, pickings are pretty slim, but I finally scrounge a pair of large-size spiky sandals, strap them on, and head out to the start gate. Unfortunately, my delay in finding footwear has me well behind the last group to depart. Reinhart is with me, and we're advisied to slide down the course on our rears until we catch the group, which is already two turns ahead of us.

After double-checking that we weren't being pranked, Reinhart slides a few feet down the tube but gives up and stands. My former NHRA.com cohort, Rob Geiger, suddenly wants to go, too, but he doesn't have the studded soles. I agree to help him along down the course, and we saddle up, me in front and him behind, bobsledders without a bobsled, for a fast ride down the course on our butts.

Now, on the surface, this is a really swell idea and a great way to catch up to the group, except that I, of course, am not wearing snow pants yet. When we finally grind to a halt, my jeans are fairly soaked. I won't do that again.

We hobble along after the others with Geiger holding my shoulders and foot-sliding behind me. We eventually catch up to Jeg and Samantha, and she kindly offers Rob one of her two "sandals." It's a Keystone Kops-worthy scene as he tries to strap one on while maintaining a precarious balance. No sooner is he safely into the device than a friendly photographer standing along the course offers his pair to them, giving everyone equal footing.

We negotiate the course, listening to the advice being doled out to the drivers: where to be on the course at this point, how high to be on this turn, what to aim for in the turn ahead, etc. The sheer wall face of the legendary Shady 2 corner towers 15 feet above us, though we have to duck to exit the corner, where the ceiling height is just about 4 feet. In a sled, it's like threading a needle, except at speed on ice. We learn later just how tricky this is. We shuffle our way down the course, taking photos and mugging for the TV cameras documenting the walk.

3:30 p.m.: It's time to begin sledding. The drivers will all get their first runs beginning at one of the lower start houses -- Start 4, which begins at Turn 9 -- so that they can get a slower-speed feel for the turns ahead, which make up the most technical parts of the course. All of the drivers take off – with just a small push; no running starts like you see on TV -- accompanied by a brakeperson, who is selected randomly from among those eager to ride, which includes friends and a dozen or so National Guardsmen. Funny Car racer Phil Burkart Jr., who made the three-hour drive from Utica, N.Y., to again help run the event, asks me if I want to take a ride. I grab a helmet and surge to the front of the line and jump into the backseat of the Home Depot sled of NASCAR rookie of the year Joey Logano, but my broad shoulders won’t fit below the top rail, and my double-layer jacket isn’t helping. I'm bummed and climb out.

phil.jpg4 p.m.: Burkart decides to take a drive himself and asks if I want another crack at it. He doesn't have to ask twice. I dump the inner layer of my jacket and squeeze in, and it’s a great fit, though far from comfortable. As brakeperson, you slide in behind the driver and thread your feet between the driver's shoulders and the outside of the sled. You then have to bend over at the waist for aerodynamic reasons and to be able to grasp the brake handle, which is inconveniently on the floor of the sled, between your thighs. There are two other handles, easier to grab, to hold on to during the ride. Until the finish, the brakeperson's job is supposed to be to stay low, look at the floor, and wait for the driver to call for brakes at the end of the run. It's not a glorious position.

bobsled.jpgBurkart has made about 20 laps down the course throughout the years, so I feel pretty safe, and, heck, he does a pretty decent job of negotiating the course, but it seems like it's over before it starts, just a blur of white walls and banks and jolts. It feels faster than it really is, and it's almost too much to observe, and I was only riding. I can’t imagine how the rookie sledders do this. (Yeah, for the record, I didn't keep my head down; I wanted to see this deal.) There's another round of rides Saturday, and I vow to be ready.

4:15 p.m.: The drivers are taken up to Start 3, which will add five new turns and a lot more speed to their runs. From this point on, due to insurance regs I guess, the National Guardsmen only will serve as brakepersons. I would have loved to have taken a shot from the top. Everyone does pretty well, and only George Brunnhoelzl, the 2009 NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified champ, flips it and rides out the rest of his run on his lid. No harm, no foul, and the day is over. Well, the sledding part that is.

 7:30 p.m.: There's a gala reception at the famous Olympic hockey rink where the 1980 U.S. team pulled off the Miracle on Ice. Being the hockey nut, I didn’t want to miss it, and, as advertised by those who have been there before me, the place seems absolutely tiny. It looks way bigger on TV.

team.jpgThe bobsled drivers are introduced on the ice, and, in a neat ceremony, USA hockey jerseys, bearing the drivers' names, are lowered from the ceiling and donned. Much photo-opping later, we're treated to the official unveiling of the paint scheme for the Team USA sleds that will compete in the upcoming Vancouver Olympic Games. More photo-opping follows, and the crowd is allowed onto the ice for photos, too. It's a mob scene.

9 p.m.: It's off to a group dinner at the Boat House, right on Mirror Lake. It's a fun and raucous affair, with lots of good-natured ribbing and great food.

10:30 p.m.: At the end of a long day, it's time to hit the hay and get ready for another early start, with another practice session from the top of the hill slated for 9 a.m.

Part 2