USA bobsleds turn to BMW to find technological edge – USA TODAY

Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Michael Scully got into a bobsled on a late autumn night in Lake Placid two and half years ago with idyllic wonder flitting in his mind.

“The track at night is this beautiful white ribbon running down through this black wildnerness,” Scully said.

With USA pilot Steve Holcomb in front of him and brakeman Curt Tomasevicz behind him in the sled at the top of track, Scully pulled out his video camera.

“I just thought visually it was going to be so cool that I’ll get this on film,” Scully said.

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Scully recalls Tomasevicz saying, “You’re going to want to put that down. And you’re going to want to hang on and maybe put your head between your legs.”

“No, no, no, I got this,” Scully replied, and one can imagine Tomasevicz rolling his eyes.

The camera captured, oh, just about the first 5 seconds of the ride.

“It looks like a smooth, beautiful run. When you’re in one, it’s an entirely different experience,” Scully said. “On TV when you see it, you don’t get that sense of just that pure chaos. You don’t sense the G-force or the vibrations. It’s like a collision in every corner.”

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From there Scully, who works for BMW/Designworks, began designing a high-end, high-tech two-man bobsled that is fast, successful and envied by other nations, including Germany.

BMW began its partnership with the USA in 2010, but it isn’t the only car manufacturer involved in this highly competitive field — Italy drives Ferrari-designed bobsleds, and Britain uses McLaren-designed sleds.

Scully, 42, started making sketches in a notepad in the fall of 2011, eventually transferring them to a computer, leading to models made with a computer program, testing those models in simulations, building two prototypes and finally unveiling the finished sled in March 2013.

The new BMW sleds resulted in one the U.S. bobsled federation’s best two-man seasons. In eight World Cup men’s events and eight women’s events, the U.S. finished on the podium 23 times, including eight first-place finishes. Holcomb won the overall two-man points title, Elana Meyers finished second and Jamie Greubel third.

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On Monday, Holcomb drove USA-1 to a bronze medal in two-man bobsled, the first medal for the USA since 1952.

In 2012-13, the U.S. men and women were on the podium 13 times in 16 races.

“They’re passionate and want to make sure they have the best machine on the hill,” Holcomb said. “It’s pretty obvious (BMW) has the best machine on the hill.”

The U.S. sleds are is made of carbon fiber and BMW has extensive knowledge of carbon fiber, using it to make its electric i3 car. Carbon fiber is “incredibly light as well as stiff. When laminated properly, it is less prone to cracks and fissures,” Scully said. “Because it’s light and stiff, it’s advantageous to handling. We’re also able to centralize the weight and position the weight where we want it and allow for finer-tuning.”


U.S. bobsled and skeleton federation CEO Darrin Steele wanted the athletes to have equipment they didn’t need to worry about. If it was the best in the world, they could focus on driving.

“I never say just sleds win races. If they did, you’d sweep the medals all the time. You’ve still got to drive them. You’ve still got to push,” Steele said. “You want to take the focus off the sleds so it can be on the athletes.”

Steele had another concern. Would BMW, headquartered in Munich, share technology with the German bobsled team? Nope. BMW of North America and Designworks consider the U.S. sled technology top-secret information that won’t be shared.

Steel wouldn’t disclose the price of a sled – there are six new BMW sleds – but it will take you north of 7-series money to get you in the door.

Since Scully and his team came into the project with new prior experience with bobsleds, they looked at everything afresh and developed a smaller, more aerodynamically and more ergonomically correct sled.

Early in the design process, Scully and his team started with a five bobsled families – one for each color of the Olympic rings – on the computer. They were different designs, shapes and features.

“The green family was so bad, it didn’t have a chance,” Scully said.

The black family won out in computer testing. Then, Scully starts dropping phrases such as “computational fluid dynamics,” “longitudinal force” and “vertical force.”

On the computer, the design team ran 69 iterations of the black sled. Each iteration takes a full day. “It takes the overnight to run the simulation,” Scully said. “We get the results in the morning, make the change the next day and do it again.”

The tests try to replicate on-track situations and are useful, helping produce a sled that can down the track.

“You really get your answers when you get onto a track,” Scully said. “Simulations are one tool that helps you in the process but you can’t treat it as the entire truth.

They got a bobsled on the hill in March, 2012. “It was also first time we had a designed and built a bobsled. We needed to know it would get down a track and things would work,” Scully said.

This is where the athletes really enter the picture. They deliver feedback.

“BMW realized there’s a lot more to it than just throwing carbon fiber and steel together,” Holcomb said.

Said Scully: “Holcomb is so articulate with his feedback because he has that sixth sense. That back and forth was critical.”

The second prototype was smaller than the first, and designers refined the third sled – the one used now – even more. Carbon fiber allows designers to distribute more weight on the bottom portion of the sled, with the top portion thinner and lighter, creating a more aerodynamic sled.

On the track during preseason training in October in Lake Placid, the sled ran well and athletes liked the finished product.

“Tests are tests, which is valuable and critical, but you need to get into international competitive arena,” said Scully who has raced competitively in auto racing and when he was younger in snowboarding. “That’s where you find the true truth.”

Holcomb won the first four races of the World Cup season – all in North America. Pilot Nick Cunningham finished second, third and second in those four races. Curt Butner had two podium finishes.

Meyers went 2-1-1-2, and Greubel went 3-3-2-3 in their first four races, and Meyers, Greubel and Jazmine Fenlator swept the podium in a race in Park City, Utah.

In Europe, Holcomb won one race and Butner placed third. Meyers placed second three times and Greubel won a race in Europe.

“Their sleds are very intelligently engineered,” Canadian bobsled pilot Lyndon Rush said. “It’s really smart way of thinking through the design.”

The United States Olympic Committee’s partnership with BMW runs through the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Will be Scully be along for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics?

“Sign me up,” he said.


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