Stars on ice
Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene
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
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
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”.
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.
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.
just happened to be the right guy at the right time. He poured
his heart and soul into this thing.”
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
“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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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 ,” 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
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.
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
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.