Mooresville, N.C. • Steven Holcomb sits low in the driver’s seat of his sleek new bobsled, his head poking up just enough for his eyes to peek out over the hood.
Three hulking teammates cram in behind him, heads down and abs crunched, in an effort to tuck as low and tight as possible while a steady blast of air rushes over them at 80 mph. On the other side of a massive wall, engineers record everything, using cameras and computers, hoping to discover the aerodynamically perfect way for Holcomb to drive the sled down an icy track at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
But outside, it is hot and muggy.
The simple aluminum-sided building that houses the enormous wind tunnel in which the athletes crouch — a giant garage, really — rests on a plain lot just off a little black ribbon of two-lane road cutting through the lush Carolina forest. The Olympics are still 169 days and 6,000 miles away.
But this is where Holcomb has come, to try to win another gold medal.
‘It can’t go fast enough’ • Three and a half years ago, everything was golden for Steven Holcomb.
The 33-year-old from Park City, who had overcome near blindness, a suicide attempt and a DUI arrest, had the fastest sled in the world — the famous “Night Train” — the first four-man Olympic gold medal won by an American in 62 years, and his pick of high-profile celebrations and public appearances after the Vancouver Olympics in Canada. The U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation was celebrating its finest hour.
It wasn’t long, though, before cracks started to show.
Although Holcomb continued to excel for a while — he became the first American to sweep the two-man and four-man races at the 2012 world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y. — other sleds from other countries began to catch up.
The federation ran low on money and couldn’t service all of its sleds properly.
And in a development that has dominated the bobsled world since Vancouver, the federation also began clashing with Geoff Bodine, the former stock-car driver who started the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project, which had built and maintained the entire fleet of American sleds over a span of nearly 20 years. The sides eventually ended their long relationship in a dispute over intellectual property and control of the sleds, and settled a pending lawsuit just five months ago after a two-year battle.
“We knew this split was only going to hurt the athletes,” Bodine said.
It did, from the looks of it.
By the end of last season, the fastest pilot in the world had inexplicably fallen off the leaderboard.
After winning the first three two-man races of the World Cup season, Holcomb couldn’t finish higher than eighth in the last three — though he and brakeman Curtis Tomasevicz did claim a bronze medal at the world championships in St. Moritz after spending most of the season testing different sleds.
In four-man, Holcomb finished second in the first two races of the season, then failed to finish higher than sixth in the last six, one of which he skipped to prepare for the world championships. In the season finale on the Olympic track in Sochi, Holcomb and the Night Train were a distant 10th.
“It was disappointing because you have a sled that’s unbeatable, and then all of a sudden, it can’t go fast enough,” he said. “And you don’t know why. We still, to this day, don’t know.”
Most people involved with the team figure it was a combination of factors, from less-than-ideal maintenance — the federation could not afford to send a full-time sled technician on the World Cup circuit — to other teams improving and the disruption caused by the rift between Bodine and the federation.
Bodine is clearly still a little bitter over the split, in fact, describing the federation as having “turned on us.”
But later, he insists that “it’s all good” and that now, two years after they parted ways, the sides are ready to do whatever is necessary to help the athletes.
Which is why Bodine has built Holcomb another state-of-the-art bobsled.
‘Better bullet’ • Just like its predecessor, the “Night Train 2” is all-black, intimidating and built in America. But this time, it also has a carbon-fiber construction, improved suspension and smoother steering, built by a team of engineers recruited to Bo-Dyn from the auto-racing world and devoted to returning Holcomb to the top of the medal stand.
“It’s a better bullet,” said Hans Debot, the team’s composites expert from North Carolina.
That’s because the carbon-fiber is stronger than the old Kevlar-and-fiberglass construction, allowing greater flexibility in distributing weight within the sled. That’s vitally important and can help trim valuable time off a bobsled run, which is timed to the hundredth of a second.
About $150,000, Bodine said, most of it from sponsors and supporters. And right out of the box, as they say, the Night Train 2 clocked a time in Lake Placid last March just as fast as one of the original Night Train’s times during a World Cup event there last year.
“We’ve proven that it’s fast,” said Bob Cuneo, the sled-design mastermind who owns Chassis Dynamics and co-founded Bo-Dyn years ago. “Even when it’s not perfect, it’s really fast.”
But Holcomb and his team are trying to get it perfect.
That’s why they recently spent an entire day at the A2 Wind Tunnel outside of Charlotte, deep in the heart of NASCAR country, climbing into and out of the sled over and again for four-minute test runs monitored by Cuneo and his fellow engineers. The athletes — including Tomasevicz, Justin Olsen, Steve Langton and alternate Chris Fogt, of Alpine, who recently won the national push-start championship — switched positions in the sled, tried different helmets, and taped down even the smallest bits of their already skin-tight uniforms to reduce the drag.
“There’s a great sign on the wall out there that says one test result is worth 1,000 expert opinions,” Holcomb said.
But that doesn’t mean he has a free ride back to the podium all of a sudden, just like that.
‘Time crunch’ • By its nature, bobsled driving takes a long time to master.
Basketball players can shoot hundreds of jump shots a day, sometimes in their own backyard, to improve quickly. Baseball players can work on their swing over and over, until it’s nearly dark outside. Bobsled drivers? They must haul a nearly 500-pound sled to the top of a huge mountain at one of only 17 tracks around the world, and persuade at least three other guys to go along, just to practice a 90-second ride one time.
Which explains how Holcomb spent only about two hours in the sled throughout all of last season, combined.
So having only about four months to figure out all of the nuances of a new sled before the Olympics start in February is not quite the ideal scenario.
Yes, the American bobsledders will get a few dozen runs on the Olympic track when they spend a training week in Sochi in late November. But Holcomb would have loved to have had more time to get comfortable to challenge the Russians, Germans, Swiss and Canadians — all of whom have been working with better equipment and better financing, all along.
“It would have been awesome to have this a year ago,” Holcomb said. “It’s amazing that we have it now, but at the same time, it’s just a time crunch. We only have four months to figure it out. … I know we’re going to have the fastest push on the hill. I don’t want to be the one who makes the mistakes so I have to figure out what it takes to get this sled to do exactly what I want it to do when I need it.”
At the very least, the team testing the Night Train 2 doesn’t believe it will be any slower than the original.
“We’re pretty confident,” said Mike Kohn, the two-time Olympian who’s now an assistant coach for the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation.
That’s good. Time is short.
‘Learning curve’ • Little figures to feel normal for the U.S. bobsledders during the season leading up to the Sochi Olympics.
While the federation has started to heal its rift with Bo-Dyn, it also has a new sled-building partner in BMW, the German automaker. The deal raised eyebrows when it was announced, particularly in Germany, where BMW was seen as abetting its nation’s sporting rival.
So far, though, the company has produced only one sled for the U.S. federation — a prototype two-man sled that Holcomb drove at a few races last year. The company is supposed to deliver six two-man sleds by Oct. 1, according to federation president Darrin Steele, who said he hopes that will provide enough time for testing at Lake Placid for two-man and two-woman teams before the World Cup season starts Nov. 30 in Calgary.
“If we were just going to get those sleds halfway through the season, yeah, I’d be nervous,” Steele said. “We’ll be able to work out the kinks the we’ve got. There’s always a learning curve for any new equipment, so if the pilots are in the same sleds for the whole season, I think that’s plenty of time, and we’ll be just fine.”
Both Bo-Dyn and BMW plan to send sled technicians on the World Cup circuit to service American sleds this season, but neither will touch sleds made by the other. What’s more, Bo-Dyn is focused primarily on the Night Train 2, which was built specifically for Holcomb rather than the federation, whose other athletes might not receive the attention they feel they deserve.
And what if that $150,000 investment in Night Train 2 has somehow yielded a sled that doesn’t perform in races quite as well as the original Night Train? Or if the BMW sleds aren’t as fast as everybody hopes, or don’t arrive in time?
“It can be just a little bit stressful, because we don’t know where we’re going,” Holcomb said. “We’re just kind of using what we’ve got and hoping that we’re good. I’m excited that the bigwigs are like, ‘Well, we believe in our athletes, it doesn’t matter what sled they’re in.’ That’s awesome. But, as an athlete, I’m telling you, we’re worried about what sleds we’re in. We need to have competitive sleds.”
Steele believes it will all work out.
“At the end of the day, the coaches, the athletes and I are all on the same page,” he said. “They need to compete in the fastest sled on the hill. Doesn’t matter which logo it has on it or which manufacturer put it together. We still believe that.
“Everyone realizes that this is the Olympics,” he added, “and the team is bigger than any one group or one person.”
‘Icing on the cake’ • In a way, Holcomb doesn’t have anything to prove.
He snapped a 62-year medal drought, swept a world championships, and has won overall World Cup titles in each discipline. He acknowledges that the pressure is off a bit, because he has that gold medal from Vancouver. Nobody can take it away, and it will always be there, whether he ever wins another one.
Still, he remembers how some critics within bobsledding grumbled that he was lucky in Vancouver, and he doesn’t like at all the taste of the way last season ended. He wants desperately to repeat as the four-man champion — something that hasn’t been done since East Germany’s Meinhard Nehmer did it at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
“That would be amazing,” he said. “It would just be kind of like icing on the cake.”
Which is why Holcomb summoned his entire team to a big garage on a plain lot just off a little black ribbon of two-lane road cutting through the lush Carolina forest, to try to win another gold medal.