Commentary

Bodine Bobsled Challenge brings out the racer in a hurry

The Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge started as a way to raise money to keep American bobsledders in top-notch American-made equipment. It has turned into one of the brightest offseason events on the motorsports calendar, writes John Schwarb.

Updated: January 3, 2008, 11:09 AM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

Loyal "Said Heads," in their tie-dyed shirts and puffy wigs imitating their idol's crazy hair, pop up wherever Boris Said goes on the racing circuit. Among the road-racing ace's regular stops are the NASCAR events on the winding courses at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Sonoma, Calif., where his prowess at turning left and right is at peak demand.

But the Said Heads should see Said on a sled.

[+] EnlargeBoris Said
Courtesy ORDABoris Said is the unisputed ace of racecar drivers piloting a bobsled.

The king of the road courses is turning out to be an equally impressive force on a bobsled, at least for a couple of days every January. For two years Said has dominated the Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge, a fundraising event at Lake Placid, N.Y., featuring stock car and drag racing stars. He'll look to defend his title beginning Thursday at the Olympic Sports Complex.

"For some reason I've taken to it like a duck to water," Said said. "I guess it's different than anything I've ever done before, but it's kind of like a road course; maybe that helps."

Among the competitors trying to dethrone Said will be NASCAR drivers Todd Bodine, Johnny Benson, Ron Hornaday and Randy LaJoie; NHRA racers Morgan Lucas, J.R. Todd, Bob Vandergriff and Jeg Coughlin; and NASCAR developmental series champions Joey Logano, Donny Lia, L.W. Miller and Steve Carlson.

Drivers' calendars are often filled with fundraisers involving racing, sometimes moving them out of their usual elements and into go-karts or dirt late-model cars. Nothing quite compares, though, to an invitation to fly more than 60 mph down a sheet of ice.

"It's a blast," said Lucas, a second-year competitor and runner-up to Said in one of the two races last year. "It's one of those deals that you feel if you're in control, you're fast because you can make it fast. If not, it's because you made it so. In drag racing, so many things add into it, but this thing is a driver test only."

Geoff Bodine knew his racing peers would be attracted to the challenge of bobsledding, and created the Challenge in 2005 to supplement what had already been a decade of dedication to a single goal -- building a better bobsled in the United States that its Olympians could ride to championships.

The 18-time Winston Cup winner was still in the midst of a full-time racing career in 1992, only to be pulled into bobsledding while watching that year's Winter Olympics from his home in Chemung, N.Y. He first joked that the then-struggling U.S. bobsled team could "use a real racer to drive those things," getting laughs from his family, but then wondered if the problem ran deeper than personnel when a television commentator noted that American bobsledders bought their equipment from other countries.

European teams dominating the medal count were selling bobsleds to the U.S., but Bodine figured that to be the equivalent of a race-car driver buying a vehicle from a top competitor. It might be a good piece, but would it really be the best?

Bodine traveled to Lake Placid, took a ride in a two-man bobsled and began investigating the sport, discovering that there were no world-class bobsleds being made stateside and that athletes were indeed purchasing their own from overseas.

"I said 'no, this is not acceptable,' " Bodine recalled. "I'm a really patriotic guy, my dad was in World War II, I was in the National Guard for six years, and I said Americans should be using American-made equipment, they shouldn't have to buy their equipment, and someone should be furnishing it for them."

[+] EnlargeNASCAR driver Geoff Bodine, front, had a simple goal for his bobsledding endeavor; put American bobsledders in competitive American-made sleds.
Courtesy ORDANASCAR driver Geoff Bodine, front, had a simple goal for his bobsledding endeavor; put American bobsledders in competitive American-made sleds.

So Bodine and friend Bob Cuneo of Chassis Dynamics, a race-car-chassis-building company, launched the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project. Its first sled was built on a shoestring budget of $25,000, incorporating elements of race cars such as detachable bodies and car-like suspensions. And it was plenty fast on the track.

The project took off and 10 years after Bodine's living-room brainstorm, the two-woman bobsled team of Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers won gold and two-man men's teams took silver and bronze at the Salt Lake City Olympics, all in Bo-Dyn sleds. Today the U.S. boasts a World Cup champion in Steve Holcomb, another Bo-Dyn success story.

"We changed the way bobsleds are built around the world," Bodine said, while quickly adding that these sleds are not for sale to the competition.

Staying on top takes money, of course, and the Bo-Dyn Project needs more, hence the Bodine Challenge.

"The purpose was a couple-fold, for a while it was to bring more awareness to the American public about bobsledding, and what better way to do that with getting some NASCAR drivers involved," Bodine said. "It worked the first year, everyone had a great time, and last year we expanded to other racers. That got even more guys watching bobsledding.

"Another reason for the event was to try to raise some funds so we could keep building these bobsleds. You need sponsors, participation by fans. It's been hard to make money, but the events are good."

The drivers are given a full immersion into the bobsled experience over three days of learning and racing.

The first day the competitors learn the basics and walk the course, a sometimes-treacherous endeavor in itself when you're walking down an icy chute in spiked shoes. Lucas fell twice last year; "me and that course became one," he said.

The second day features more practice and qualifying, and the racers' inquisitive minds begin to hone in on the challenge.

"At first they were just overwhelmed by thrill, just trying to survive, then the competitive juice started," Bodine said. "They started asking all the bobsled athletes hanging around with us, 'what should you do in Turn 3, Turn 4,' they were asking questions that just sounded like a NASCAR track, and these athletes were never asked these kind of questions about a corner."

In the two-man format, the racer drives while a New York National Guardsman rides in the back as the brakeman. Stories abound of mishaps; one turn near the bottom of the Lake Placid course is called the "Trickle Turn" from the Challenge's first year, when Dick Trickle flipped his sled twice in the same spot.

Those kind of stories get around to first-timers.

"I'm going to start 5 feet up [the track], then I'll go 10 feet, I don't know if I'm going to the top. They know their limit and I know mine," said Hornaday, the Craftsman Truck Series champion. "I'll watch them go down it and if it goes too fast and it looks like it's scary, I'll just sit back. Twenty years ago I would have jumped in and not worried about it, but I've got a couple more championships I want to win in this truck series first."

[+] EnlargeKevin Lepage
Courtesy ORDAKevin Lepage is the only driver to break Boris Said's stranglehold on the Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge.

The third day of the Challenge is race day, which includes two events of two runs each with the fastest combined time winning. Said has won three of the four events over the past two Challenges, with only Kevin Lepage in the inaugural Challenge preventing a complete Said sweep.

Said has bobsledding in his lineage. Father Bob was an Olympic bobsled driver in 1968 in 1972. Boris didn't get into a bobsled until the first Bodine Challenge, but it was hard to tell.

He has never had a Trickle-like moment, far from it. Now he's as much of a tutor as an opponent.

"Racers are competitive -- once they figure it out, they're going to be good, and they all want to get good. We all want to win," Said said.

For more information, visit www.bodynbobsled.com.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.