Ten NASCAR speedsters take a drive in a bobsled
It's 11 a.m. on a blustery 8-degree Saturday in early January and a freezing wind is whipping through the Start 3 gate at the Lake Placid, N.Y., bobsled track.
The 10 drivers suited up for today's race pace the floor of the heated start house as they take their final mental runs down one of the most technical tracks in the world. Sliders call it the Daytona of bobsled racing, but that handle is about to be put to the test. The first-annual Bo-Dyn Bobsled Challenge, an Olympic fundraiser organized by 25-year Cup vet Geoff Bodine, starts in 15 minutes and 10 of NASCAR's finest have flown in from Charlotte to race the stock cars of snow. Up for grabs: bobsled bragging rights at the Daytona 500, the Feb. 19 race that, every four years, coincides with men's two-man bobsled finals at the Winter Olympics. Talk about full circle.
In 1992, Geoff Bodine watched from his North Carolina home as Giants running back Herschel Walker anchored the U.S. Olympic team's most promising two-man bobsled team -- and finished seventh. "We had the talent, but we weren't doing very well," he said. "I got curious." Bodine flew to Lake Placid the next month. "I learned the athletes had to buy their own equipment and they bought their sleds from the Germans -- their competition," he said. "They should be made in the USA." They are now. Since 1993, the U.S. bobsled team has raced in U.S.-made Bo-Dyn bobsleds.
During Friday's qualifying runs, charity (The morning mantra: "It's all for fun, and a good cause!") turns to competition. Boris Said has taken quickly to his new ride and his morning domination is sparking controversy. On this track, a 50-lb weight differential can mean as much as a half-second difference, and the 6'5" Said and his brakeman weigh in at a whopping 472, more than 100 pounds heavier than the lightest load of Joel Kauffman's two-man team. "Weigh in!" Geoff Bodine calls in an effort to even the field. New rule: No team can exceed 400 pounds. Said searches for a new second: "Someone find me a skinny guy!"
"Racing is in my genes," said Said, whose 52.20-second run leads after the first heat of the Saturday morning race, despite running a lighter load. Boris' late father, Bob Said, was a bobsled driver in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics and took a five-year-old Boris on his first runs down this course in 1980, the year the track was built. Seems the lesson stuck. Said's second-run time is the fastest so far and his combined 1:44:38 secures him the top perch on the podium. Todd Bodine is second and Stanton Barrett, who will set the day's course record in the afternoon race, finishes third. Said Said: "Dad didn't even win a gold medal in Lake Placid."
Midway through the first race, it happens. What every fan -- and most of the drivers -- have anticipated all day. "He flipped!" the announcers confirm. Headed into the tricky turn 18, 64-year-old Dick Trickle hangs up on the left wall and slides the rest of the course upside down. Bad for him -- worse for his brakeman, Kelly Weaver, whose body is much more exposed. Neither is seriously injured, but Weaver's battered, bruised and blue. The team arrives to applause at the top of the course -- and a little ribbing. In the slide, the sled's custom paint job was scratched up and Trickle's name is unreadable. "Hey, Trickle!" the guys yell in chorus. "You knocked the 'Dick' off your sled."
Trickle flipped again in the second run and in the same spot. The U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Association decided to officially name the turn he flipped on "Trickle's Turn."
The freezing temp isn't the only obstacle the wheel-and-motor guys must adjust to. "No pit crews here," said Mat Anderson, 25, one of five members of the U.S. Bobsled Team here to coach the NASCAR drivers. After each run, a bobsled driver and his brakeman are responsible for flipping the sled on its side to protect the steel runners, lifting it onto a loading platform, sliding it into the sled truck and unloading it at the top of the course. "I don't think these guys are used to doing this much work," Anderson said. "But we'd rather they just have fun."
More than an hour before race time, fans are bundled three deep along the ¾-mile track. The crowd is a bigger draw than any World Cup bobsled race. "That was the plan," Bodine said. "To bring NASCAR fans to the Olympics." Next year promises more action. "We're building 10 more sleds and inviting 20 drivers," he said. And stiffer competition. "I'm going to the track in Park City, Utah, to train with Grayson, my coach," said Stanton Barrett. "I'll be ready for them next year."
Alyssa Roenigk is a general editor at ESPN The Magazine
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