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On sliding scale, it's smooth as ice


PARK CITY, Utah - This area where bobsledders, lugers and skeleton riders go to work is called Bear Hollow. They should have picked a quicker animal.

The mile-long ice chute is not only the highest track in the world, but it's also the fastest.

Athletes coming here from around the world marvel at its glass-like surface that makes sled runners glide like butter on a hot griddle. They know that their sleds will not be knocked off course by a frozen imperfection. Still, some sliders are a little unhinged as they anticipate things that aren't there.

"This track is beautiful. It's the best I've ever been on," said Canadian luger Kyle Connelly. "On my first [training] run, all the way down I was screwing up my lines because the track had no bumps."

A perfect surface, said Mark Hatton, a luger from Great Britain, means spectacular runs. "This sport is so much easier when the track is like this. ... I'd say there's close to a 100 percent chance there will be a track record."

There's already been a world record, an unbear-like 86.6 mph set last fall by American Tony Benshoof.

Ice may be a natural substance, but this ice is the work of man. A crew of 20 sculpts the 1- to 3-inch-thick ice coating that covers the cement track, doing by hand what a Zamboni machine does to a hockey rink.

Tilting their heads to the side to get a sled-eye view of the track, they seek out mini-potholes and bubbles and eliminate them with small tools that look like they came off a hardware store rack. They scrape away bumps, use trowels to spoon slush into holes and smooth it out, and spritz small scrapes with water that quickly freezes.

Their work isn't done after a race starts, either. Like fussy housekeepers, crew members dash out between runs to patch this or that, stretching above their heads to reach spots where sled runners have carved the surface as they pull 5 Gs in the curves.

"The more bumps you get ahead of, the less work you have later," said Craig Lehto, director of Utah Olympic Park, where the track is located.

Leading the crew are two ice meisters, Canadian Tracy Seitz and Italian Hans Sparber.

Seitz turned to track maintenance when he couldn't find winter construction jobs in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta. Sparber followed a more traditional route, helping build a track in Olang, Italy, and working at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games.

Lehto recruited Seitz, who in turn recruited Sparber.

Their secret weapon is the state-of-the-art refrigeration system that pumps anhydroris ammonia through tubing beneath the concrete chute. It can keep the temperature at freezing even on a summer day.

But the crew and track officials are clock-watchers, using what nature gives them to provide optimum conditions. To avoid the sun's melting rays in the thin mountain air, races begin by 9 a.m., break at noon and start again at 4 p.m.

Seitz says the 7,300-foot elevation sometimes makes it feel "like we're almost touching the sun, it's so hot."

A series of white shades can be unfurled to cover the track, but officials don't like to use them a lot during competition, because they block spectators' view.

Then there's the opposite end of the thermometer. Lehto said they have to avoid letting the ice get too cold for bobsledding. Brittle ice cracks under the weight of an 800-pound sled, making repairs during competition difficult.

The unknown of this Olympics is whether the track, which opened in 1997, can withstand the pounding of 11 days of competition involving men's and women's luge, bobsled and skeleton and men's luge doubles.

"This is a difficult sliding schedule, the most difficult ever," Lehto said.

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