LAKE PLACID - U.S. bobsled star Steven Holcomb finally has something to smile about - a brand-new, four-man sled with lots of carbon fiber, state-of-the-art suspension, and updated steering, all compliments of former NASCAR star Geoff Bodine, ace designer Bob Cuneo, and North Carolina-based race car builder Jim Garde.
Just like its predecessor, Night Train-2 is black - and it's fast.
"So far, so good out of the box. A lot of potential. I think we're onto something good," Holcomb, the reigning Olympic champion in four-man, said after four days of testing last week on his home track at Mount Van Hoevenberg. "I'm looking forward to tweaking it and making it faster. The down time was the same as World Cup training. It's exciting to see."
Driven by Steven Holcomb, Night Train-2 negotiates Curve 9 at Mount Van Hoevenberg on Friday during its final day of testing the new Bo-Dyn sled.
(Photo — Jason Hicks-Moriarty)
It's been nearly two years since the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF) parted ways with Bodine's passion - the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project, Inc. The long-time relationship was terminated in April 2011 when a new deal couldn't be worked out, intellectual property the sticking point.
Pending litigation remains between the two sides. A proposed out-of-court agreement has been drafted several times and the USBSF indicated last week that they would sign it, according to Phil Kurze, vice president of Connecticut-based Whelen Engineering who also serves as president of the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project.
"We are hopeful that we can come to an agreement with the USBSF very soon," Kurze said.
Bodine, whose involvement in the sport since 1992 has helped transform the United States into a consistent podium contender after decades of mediocrity, has vowed to continue to provide sleds to the U.S. team. He's hopeful he also can raise funds to fabricate a pair of two-man sleds for Sochi, though he admits it's a lot to ask for in such a short span of time. The estimated cost to build Night Train-2 was $250,000.
Any help at this point would be welcome.
Every time Holcomb enters the sled shed at Mount Van Hoevenberg, the one Bodine and Whelen Engineering were instrumental in building, he's dismayed.
"We have 10 sleds that are essentially falling apart, showing serious wear and tear," Holcomb said. "Nobody is maintaining them. There's mold growing on one. They haven't been maintained in two years."
"It's a pile of rubble," he said. "I never thought I'd see it in such disarray. Before we came up here, (Holcomb) told us they had little or no hope of going to Sochi and winning anything. Now, after the test, they believe they can win another gold medal. That's how good the sled felt to him. We're very pleased."
A year ago, Darrin Steele, chief executive officer of the USBSF, called the third year between Olympiads crucial "because that leads into the confidence of the Olympic year." The confidence that came with Holcomb's breakthrough triumphs in both two-man and four-man at the 2012 world championships on his home track in Lake Placid has instead taken a hit.
Despite winning the first three two-man events of the 2012-13 World Cup season - at Lake Placid, Park City and Whistler - Holcomb finished fourth in the standings, faltering at the end as he finished no better than eighth in the final three races. (The U.S. did not compete at Altenberg, opting instead to train for worlds at St. Moritz, where Holcomb won bronze in four-man and finished fourth in two-man).
In the Olympic two-man test race in February at Sochi, Cory Butner and brakeman Johnny Quinn were the highest-finishing Americans in ninth, more than a second off the gold-medal pace of Beat Hefti and brakeman Thomas Lamparter of Switzerland. Holcomb and Steve Langton were 12th, while teammates Nick Cunningham and Dallas Robinson finished 14th. The top eight sleds in the 33-sled field included two each from Switzerland, Germany, and Canada, and one each from Russia and Latvia.
In four-man, Holcomb's forte, his USA-1 team in the original Night Train - the sled that won Olympic gold - was a distant 10th at Sochi, behind three German teams, two Russian squads, and one each from Britain, Canada, Switzerland, and the gold medal-winning sled of Latvia.
Not a surprise in a year the USBSF's budget will end in the red.
"People wonder why my performance has suffered. The big nations - the Canadians, Germans and Russians - have mechanics that travel," Holcomb said, citing Eurotech's deal with Canada. "We have none and go day-to-day."
The Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project refurbished the American team's sleds for two decades, but since the split, few wrenches have been taken to the fleet. The goal is to get at least six in top shape for the Winter Games.
"Right now, the fleet is in need of maintenance, somebody to completely disassemble them," said 68-year-old Frank Briglia, a longtime devotee of the sport and the man the USBSF has leaned on for the past two years to help keep the fleet intact. "They need it bad. It's just a shame. Somebody has to do it."
Bodine is willing to be that somebody and Steele isn't opposed to it.
"Money's tight," he said. "Knowing that an Olympic year is coming up with new sponsors, I felt we could get away with one season in the red. But I've got my work cut out."
Next season, Bodine plans to send a tech on the road to service Night Train-2. And Briglia, who helped the U.S. team at worlds, says he'll lend a hand if asked.
"I'm a sap," Briglia said. "They're like my kids."
Holcomb is back on the ice in Lake Placid this week testing a new two-man sled produced by German automaker BMW, and so far that sled is fast, too.
"It's pretty solid. I'm very excited," Holcomb said Tuesday. "I think we've got a sled we can take into production."
The U.S. also won Olympic gold in women's bobsled at Salt Lake City in 2002, but the two-man gold has eluded the American men since 1936.