Richard Laubenstein had worked at Penske Racing out of Reading in some form since 1994, but sponsorship cuts from the tobacco industry took its toll and reduced him to part-time work with Penske's The Racing Experience the last few years.
In late summer, while checking out a racing job board online, he inadvertently punched his ticket to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
"There was some mention of 'Olympic' but they didn't say a whole lot," Laubenstein, of Kutztown, said of the position of bobsled technician for the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.
Laubenstein had spent his entire career with Penske Racing, working his way up practically from sweeping floors to being the manager of The Racing Experience, overseeing 54 cars and 24 mechanics.
A bobsled is a racing machine. How different could it be? One is on wheels, the other on metal runners, but the chassis materials and the weight distribution process to produce the greatest results is relatively the same.
Laubenstein said the tech crew, which includes Dave Cripps and Jim "Cheech" Garde, makes adjustments for the drivers and brakemen, and is also doing some tweaking of the skeleton sleds, which will be ridden by Savannah Graybill of Denver, Lancaster County.
All three men on the tech crew come from auto racing. Cripps was with Panther Racing, Garde with Hendrick Motorsports and Laubenstein with Penske.
"After I started, I found out more and more people from racing backgrounds, not only in the U.S. but from around the world, are involved in this," Laubenstein said. "Whether it's working with cars or bobsleds, we want to make them go fast."
So Laubenstein ended up in Sochi, working on the revolutionary new BMW of North America produced U.S. bobsleds, a half world away from his wife, Wendy, a teacher at Scheckler Elementary School in Catasauqua.
The 48-year-old Laubenstein hasn't been home for a while actually, even missing a Super Bowl party with friends, but is witnessing the Sochi Olympics like few others can by working on the two- and four-man bobsleds for Team USA.
"We do anything and everything possible to maintain the sleds from driver fit to runner changing," Laubenstein said during a phone interview from Sochi, where he was prepping the sleds for practice sessions heading into the competition, which begins Sunday, Feb. 16, for a U.S. team that includes women's driver Jamie Greubel of Newtown, Bucks County.
The women's team will certainly be the focus of media attention after the selection of U.S. track and field star Lolo Jones over regulars like Katie Eberling and Emily Azevedo, but the results in bobsled are all about time.
In sport where hundredths of a second count, the U.S. switched from the Bo-Dyne designed chassis that former race car driver Geoff Bodine and Chassis Dynamics developed for the U.S. heading into the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, to the new BMW design, which is manufactured at BMW Designworks in California.
While the Bo-Dyne sleds were a big leap for the U.S. back in 1994, Laubenstein says the BMW design puts the U.S. on a par with sleds used by the European teams that are designed by Ferrari.
"The bobsled is now incorporating similar materials that have been used by race cars for years," he said. "The different alloys and carbon fiber are being introduced instead of the mild steel and fiberglass that were used in previous sleds."
Laubenstein grew up in Wall, N.J., and joined Penske in 1994 for the IROC team, transferring to the IndyCar team in Reading before switching to The Racing Experience end of the business 2000-10. When Marlboro was forced to pull its advertising dollars from racing, Laubenstein ended up going part time with Penske while also working with Holger for vintage racing.
"With Penske's IROC team, I started out almost sweeping floors [before I] slowly moved up to the fabrication shop," Laubenstein said. "When I moved to the IndyCar team in fabrication, I was doing work on carbon fiber compositions and did pit crew duties like changing tires. With the racing school, I was the team manager overseeing 54 cars, eight transports and 24 mechanics."
The BMW sleds have a redesigned cowling, or shape, with the body work done primarily through computational fluid dynamics, or CFD, which is a way to design without using a wind tunnel. The sled was also tested in the wind tunnel, however, and chief designer Michael Scully even got on board for some test runs with U.S. bobsledders to make further improvements.
Laubenstein said the BMW sled is smaller than all the other sleds in the competition at Sochi, but it did very well on the international World Cup circuit heading into the Winter Games with the two-man sled winning the World Cup and the women's and men's four-man sleds both finishing second.
The runners of the sleds — the blades it rides on — are made of a specific type of stainless steel that has to be purchased from the FIBT, the governing body of the sport, which in English is called the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. Radius, offset, taper, and rock determine what shape runners need to be to use for the ice conditions.
The runners can be machined several different ways and cost upward of $10,000, but must meet certain temperature requirements prior to competition or the sled is disqualified from even making a run, as happened with the USA-2 sled in Lillehammer when the blade of one of the runners was 0.9 degrees Celsius too warm.
Laubenstein is looking to keep that all in check.
Because funding is always an issue with U.S. Olympic sports, Laubenstein isn't sure what the future holds for him with USA Bobsled and Skeleton after Sochi, but he's thrilled to be a part of the Olympic effort.
"I have an Indy 500 ring, a Daytona 500 ring, and now I'll have an Olympic ring, so it's kind of a neat deal," Laubenstein said.