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Stars on ice
Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene

          John Napier has been sliding – the on-the-mountain term for bobsledding – since he was 8 years old. Now 19 and on course to race for the United States in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, Napier has had more than a few opportunities to teach others about the sport.

          This opportunity, though, was more than a little different.

          Ten current and former NASCAR drivers arrived in Lake Placid, a small but famous village tucked into the Adirondack Mountains, Jan. 5 to compete in the first Chevrolet Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge, a three-day event designed to raise awareness and money for the U.S. Olympic bobsled program, a favorite cause of Bodine’s since 1992.

          Put competitive stock car racers in a fast vehicle headed downhill on ice, and chaos could ensue. Napier and other sliding experts were on hand to prevent such mayhem.

          In other words, he was the restrictor plate.

          “The normal person sees this as screaming fast,” Napier said of the bobsled run, where the drivers reached top speeds of about 60 miles per hour while negotiating zigzag turns. “But these guys are used to going a lot faster. They’re going to come here and feel that this is slower.”

          Part of the master plan, then, involved putting artificial brakes on the drivers, for it is common knowledge in racing circles that people who drive race cars at 200 miles per hour don’t always appreciate – or even acknowledge – the ragged edge.

          Thus, the bobsleds that were built for the Bodine Challenge are smaller and, to use an auto racing term, have more aero push than the standard competition sleds used in international events. The sleds were built with modified steel runners to lessen the chance of flipping. Experienced sledders drove them in the days prior to the Bodine event and worked overtime in experimental attempts to “crash” them, hoping to work out any bugs that might prove dangerous to the NASCAR visitors.

          They were confident they had done their job well.

          None of them knew Dick Trickle.

          The ageless (he’s supposedly 64) stock car driver trampled on the ragged edge in the first morning run of the Saturday finals, driving his bright red sled too high in a corner near the finish and flipping it on its side. The sled skated down the run, dragging Trickle and his brakeman, Kelly Weaver, along. They weren’t injured, Trickle later saying, “I was fast, but I think I left some out there on the track.” Bodine described it as “another Trickle moment.”

          Trickle crashed in the same area on his second run, igniting the “81” bobsled alert call (a wreck; an “82” call is a serious crash) up and down the course. Again, he and Weaver emerged from the sled unhurt and smiling.

          By midday, mountain regulars had renamed the course’s 18th curve “Trickle Out”.

CHALLENGING EUROPE

          Geoffrey Bodine has been sort of a lone ranger in an uphill quest to go downhill faster. After watching the American team stumble in the 1992 Olympics in foreign-built sleds, Bodine decided to commit time, effort and money to a program that would lift the country’s Olympic effort and rescue U.S. bobsledding from the depths of despair and defeat.

          Among the results was the Bo-Dyn bobsled, a newly engineered, American-built sled that benefited from Bodine’s technical and financial input. Steady gains since the initial development process led to three medal performances in the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City, and the U.S. team rolls into next month’s Olympics in Torino, Italy carrying Bo-Dyn bobsleds and high hopes.

          Bodine and local organizer John Morgan, a commentator for televised bobsled events whose family has been involved in competitive bobsledding for decades, put together the Bodine Challenge hoping to give the U.S. program additional exposure and, ultimately, produce more funding from both corporate and individual sources.

          “Anybody that knows Geoff knows when he has a passion and he sets his mind to something, it’s going to get full attention, an incredible effort and get done right,” said Todd Bodine, Geoffrey’s younger brother and one of the Challenge participants. “He saw a need for our Olympians to have better equipment. These guys were getting beaten not because of their abilities but because of their equipment. That’s just not acceptable. We’re No. 1. That’s the way it’s going to be. It’s not acceptable to get beaten by your equipment.

          “Geoff just happened to be the right guy at the right time. He poured his heart and soul into this thing.”

          For Morgan, Bodine’s contribution has been almost Biblical. A TV commentator for the past seven Olympics and a man far too familiar with the U.S. team’s struggles over the years, he said Bodine has been like a lighthouse for a disabled fleet.

          “We had no chance against the Europeans before,” Morgan said. “I’m an athlete. I don’t like to lose. To go over to Europe all those years with no hope of winning, it was tough. Now I get emotional when I see U.S. athletes go to the top of the track. Now they’re wondering not about losing but about which color medal they’re going to win.

          “To hear the national anthem after all those years, it brings tears. Geoff has taken American bobsledding, where we hadn’t won a medal since 1956, and turned it around.”

LEARNING THE ROPES

          The Challenge didn’t attract NASCAR’s leading drivers, something Bodine hopes to correct in putting together future events. Some drivers are hesitant to commit to events that stretch over several days during their short off-season.

          The enthusiasm the 10 drivers carried from Lake Placid, however, could spread through NASCAR garages and prompt a larger response for what Bodine hopes to make an annual event. All left saying they thoroughly enjoyed the visit, the venue and the competition.

          And it was competition. The event was designed to raise money and the profile of the sport, but it was clear from the first day that the drivers didn’t want to settle for second place, even in a “non-points” race. “Hell, yeah,” said Boris Said. “When you get drivers doing anything, whether it’s racing across a parking lot or what, you want to win.”

          Turns out he did. Said won the first two-heat final (total time from two runs down the course), and Kevin Lepage won the second. There was no single “king of the mountain” because a pair of races were staged for separate television broadcasts.

          Qualifying was made up of two runs the day before the finals, and Todd Bodine led that session by .07 of a second over Tim Fedewa.

          The drivers flew into Lake Placid two days before the championship round and that afternoon went through a quick session of what organizers called Bobsled 101 as sliding experts walked the course with them and explained the ins and outs of bobsledding.

          “Since they came into this not knowing right from left, you have to tell them the basics first,” said Napier. “We explained each individual turn and what they do there and how the sled steers (with ropes and handles to turn left or right). We had to keep it very simple because there’s a lot of information.”

          First, the drivers rode down the course with a veteran sledder, then they made solo runs, initially from the one-mile course’s half-mile mark, then from the three-quarter start area, where the finals would be launched. The full course wasn’t used because the additional downhill would have given the sleds too much momentum, making the run too dangerous for beginners, especially wild-eyed auto racing beginners.

          The drivers learned quickly, and they soon picked up some of the tricks of the trade, enough to make an impromptu “drivers meeting” Thursday night rather humorous. There was spirited but friendly debate on how the rules would work during the finals. Drivers were particularly concerned about the brakemen they would be paired with because more experienced sledders were stronger on the push that starts the run, a critical part of bobsled competition. That matter was settled with the decision that the sleds would be started without a push, nullifying any advantage a particular team might have had.

          Some labeled Geoffrey Bodine the pre-event favorite because of his long-time connection with the U.S. bobsled program and his familiarity with the Lake Placid course, where he has made runs with team members. “And I want to know if he cheats in this like he does in NASCAR,” Trickle jokingly said.

          By Friday’s qualifying round, all 10 drivers had learned the ropes pretty well. The top five drivers – Todd Bodine, Fedewa, Lepage, Said and Trickle – were within .48 of a second of each other, and most of their second runs were remarkably close in elapsed time to their initial runs.

          “It’s all eye-hand coordination,” said Fedewa, who compared operating the bobsled controls to operating a Bobcat. “A lot of it is the same as driving. You have to look ahead, go by the seat of your pants. You can’t overdrive it. You have to kind of take what the sled will give you. We’re all drivers, and we all have big heads and think we can do anything anyhow, so of course we think we can do it. But to do it well like our [Olympic] team is doing takes a lot of practice and a lot of training, obviously.”

          Stanton Barrett, a Hollywood stuntman who has driven all sorts of contraptions – many of them with reckless abandon, figured to be a favorite and verified the talk by finishing third in the first round and second in the second.

          “Precision is the key,” said Barrett, who had the fastest single run (51.96 seconds, the only driver other than Lepage to break the 52-second barrier) of the finals. “You have to precisely go into that corner on the right line, carry that line through the corner, read the banking and understand how high to go or how low and how to exit. It’s about reading lines.”

          Barrett’s fast run was not a thing of precise beauty, however, as he almost flipped the sled in a wild ride down the second half of the course.

          Course regulars said the drivers flew down the run about a second slower than sliding veterans.
         
CAUSING A CAUTION

          After three days of on-again, off-again snow blanketed the Adirondack Mountains, race morning broke clear and very cold – two degrees above zero. In the distance, the summit of Whiteface Mountain, the site of the Olympic skiing competition, glistened in the sunlight.

          The bitter cold caused some concern on Mount Van Hoevenberg, where conditions on the bobsled course had changed considerably from the previous two days, which were warmer (in relative terms – you still couldn’t have sunbathed) and snowy. A colder track is typically significantly faster, and that wasn’t necessarily good news for officials trying to put some gentle reins on drivers used to running wild and free.

          The talk of the mountain early race morning was not bobsledding but its companion event – luge. And not so much the racing. Members of the U.S. female luge team had posed for a “nude” photo, strategically standing behind their sleds. The photo appeared on a website – this wasn’t in the competitors’ plans, creating a stir in the tight-knit U.S. Olympic winter sports community and upsetting more than a few suits at Olympic headquarters. On the mountain, though, it was mostly funny.

          Officials were pleased as the day’s early runs went well, but then Trickle, who had had some of the weekend’s best practice runs, smoked more than his ever-present Marlboros, sending a couple of temporary jolts into the proceedings with his acrobatic runs. A bobsled on its side is never a good thing; with a novice at the controls, there was cause for alarm. But Trickle, a winner in hundreds of races and a participant in countless racing accidents, was more interested in figuring out how to go faster.

          “I had a great line for speed, but it tipped over on me a couple of times,” he said. “I had to back down and learn a different line. We were fast most of the week but didn’t get to prove it.”
         
RACING A MEMORY

          For Boris Said, the weekend was about much more than a few fast runs on the ice. For him, these mountains held ghosts.

          An accomplished road racer trying to gain a foothold in NASCAR, Said could see flashbacks to other snowy winters while waiting at the top of the run. His father, also named Boris Said but known as Bob, competed as a bobsledder for the United States in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, all the while estranged from his young son, who was born in 1962. Bob Said, who failed to medal in the ’68 and ’72 games, returned to Lake Placid in an attempt to qualify for the U.S. team for the 1980 games (held in Lake Placid) but fell short.

          Boris the racer wasn’t around his father for most of his life, but there was a reconnection of sorts on the Lake Placid mountainside – on two occasions.

          “My dad left home when I was 5 [1967],” he said. “I never saw him again until 1980 when I saw him here. He got back in touch with us. So I met him up here and got to run down the bobsled run a few times. It was pretty cool.

          “Then he was gone again for another stretch of years. So we weren’t close. He was off doing stuff.”

          Bob Said, who died a few years ago, was an adventurer and an apparent vagabond. He also raced cars, a fact his son didn’t know until he himself started a racing career and began hearing stories about his father.

          “Bob wasn’t afraid of anything,” said Phil “Bear” Duprey, who was Said’s brakeman during his two Olympic appearances. Duprey, 61, worked in the start gate during the Bodine Challenge. “When he first started sliding, he had a brand new sled and tipped over five or six times. That was the way he was. We had a lot of good times. I can see Bob in Boris.”

          In winning on the side of the mountain his father had once traveled, Said made a bridge across the years. “I guess I got a little help from above,” he said.

MIRACLES ON ICE

          A speck on the map in northern New York, Lake Placid, host to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, has a quaint lakeside Main Street, is surrounded by high mountains wrapped in white all winter and rings with the sound of sleigh bells and church bells. Skiers, skaters and sledders make the area a winter vacation capital.

          As long as there is Olympic competition, however, Lake Placid will be known principally for magic. At the hockey arena (now hopelessly small for major international competition) on the edge of town, an underdog United States team upset the Soviet Union, the kings of Olympic hockey, in the highlight of the 1980 games. Indeed, the gigantic upset – the U.S. went on to win the gold by beating Finland – is considered by many to be among the top two or three sports moments of the last century.

          It became known as the Miracle on Ice. A hockey jersey signed by Mike Eruzione, the vibrant captain of that team and a kid who wrapped himself in the American flag in the glorious celebration of the moment, can be bought in a store along Lake Placid’s Main Street for $900.

          Geoffrey Bodine says he has run his last automobile race. Now he runs in the long shadow of miracles.