Made in USA: New bobsled good as gold? LILLEHAMMER 94


LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- It's an unusual combination; a beach bum, a veteran NASCAR driver and modern technology " team up in an attempt to win a gold medal.

In the bobsled.

Well, if the Jamaicans can enter a team . . .

"This is like a Porsche compared to a Yugo, and driven by a madman," said Brian Shimer, top driver for the U.S., comparing the new Bo-Dyn models he plans to use here to previous sleds. "This should put us over the hump, and if all goes well, we'll have the gold locked up."

Poof. That simple?

First, you have to know Shimer. He is 31, a former football player at Morehead State and a prep state wrestling champion.

Cocky, too.

He drove the U.S.'s four-man team to a bronze medal at the 1993 World Championships, was crowned the 1992-93 World Cup four-man and overall champion, and won medals in every four-man race he entered last year, four of those gold.

At first, it appears strange to find Shimer, a native of Naples, Fla., obsessed with a sport where he guides a 1,400-pound bobsled down an ice-covered track at speeds in excess of 80 mph.

But Shimer failed to win a medal in the past two Winter Games.

"If I didn't have that desire to win an Olympic medal, I might be resting on the beach somewhere," said Shimer. "I like the speed, the crashing; it's the danger that has brought me hand and hand with this sport."

And there's this passion to destroy the Europeans'domination of the sport. The Americans had won 13 of 33 Olympic medals in bobsledding between 1928 and 1956 with American-made sleds. But since then, the United States has not won a medal of any kind.

In fact, the United States had become a flea-market bobsled program, trading in full-time athletes for fame by using Edwin Moses, Willie Gault and Herschel Walker before the 1992 Games, and using hand-me-down sleds from the Swiss, Germans and Italians.

"We've got athletes, real athletes, who do this year round," said Shimer, who placed seventh in the two-man competition with Walker in the 1992 Games in Albertville, France. "No offense to the big guys, but you just don't come in with very little preparation and think you're going to win because you run fast. That was a bad scenario.

"And those sleds, heck, the Europeans certainly weren't going to sell us something that we could beat them in. Our federation never had the funds to compete."

The U.S. Olympic Committee also spent considerable time investigating the U.S. Bobsled Federation for misuse of funds.

Shimer became so infuriated at the investigations that he ran up a $20,000 debt from the second mortgage taken on the family house by his father, Bud, a dry cleaning plant manager, to buy a two-man sled after the 1992 Winter Games.

NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine, winner of the 1986 Daytona 500, also became frustrated. Bodine and millions of others watched on television as the U.S. bobsled team failed at Albertville in 1992.

Bodine proclaimed he could drive better than those drivers. Critics asked him to prove it. A month later, Bodine took a few highly publicized runs down the treacherous runs at Lake Placid, two as a passenger, the third as the driver.

Bodine hit a wall. He nearly flipped. He wrecked Bruce Roselli's sled.

End of that idea.

Bodine had another.

"I told Bruce I would build him another, and that I was going to get behind the bobsled team and put some American-built sleds on top of the hill and bring a little pride back to the U.S.," said Bodine.

A few days later, Bodine contacted racing buddy Bob Cuneo of Chassis Dynamics, a company that designs and builds racing cars.

Cuneo had been enamored by the Olympic telecasts too, especially watching the sleds come off particular turns.

Bodine spent $130,000 of his own money for the new sled. Cuneo teammed with computer whiz Don Barker. They documented every chassis detail of the four different European sled designs. They interrogated bobsledders like they were involved in the Nancy Kerrigan caper.

"Millions and millions of questions," said Shimer, "questions about things I didn't think would matter."

Meanwhile, Barker worked on sled models and computer turns.

"We took all the information, and came up with a chassis design that's different from anything anyone's got," said Bodine.

The Bo-Dyn is a red, sleek, aerodynamic sled made from fiberglass, steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, Keviar and urethane.

One of the main features allows access to test-run data with the use of IBM's ThinkPad mobile computers.

By analyzing the data, the bobsled's technical crews will have the ability to customize the sled based on specific weather and ice conditions, and drivers can make technique adjustments.

But despite the technological advances, American bobsledders were skeptical until October 1992. That's when the Shimer-driven four-man Bo-Dyn sled won the first World Cup race of the year, the first victory for an American team in five years.

Shimer's sled won twice in Germany a month later, and then finished second at La Plagne, France.

"There was magic that week," said Bodine of the first victory. "That was the race we sold America on American-made products."

Still, there have been problems lately.

After that strong start, Shimer struggled in November and December with lower finishes.

He has been winless in the past six races, mostly because of poor pushes. But last weekend, Shimer's four-man team had its best start times of the year and won the Olympic trials in Calgary with a run of 54.72 seconds, missing the Calgary Park track record by 0.04 seconds.

"I'm not happy with them, but our start times are back to where they were last year, and I'm optimistic," said Shimer, who will team with Karlos Kirby (Clive, Iowa), Bryan Leturgez (Cedar Lake, Ind.) and Randy Jones (Winston-Salem, N.C.) in the four-man race. "This is the first year I've chosen my own team, and we've been together only one year compared to many for the Europeans. But we're going in as good as we've ever been.

"The Europeans are a little bit scared of this sled. The way it moves, the way it sounds. It's like, 'Man, the way it sounds. It's like, 'Man, what are these guys onto?' The European sleds can't light a candle to the Bo-Dyn. It's kind of like in the movie "Batman," where the Joker turns and says, 'Hey, wait til they get a load of this.'

"I can't wait."

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