STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's go from Oscars to gold medals. The Winter Olympics are approaching and the U.S.A. is looking to be a contender in bobsled. It took the gold in the last Winter Olympics in the four-man competition, and the U.S. is hoping to get the edge in next month's games in Sochi, Russia with a little help from technology. NPR's Robert Smith reports.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: When I meet Steve Holcomb, bobsled driver, he doesn't talk about his Olympic gold medal. He talks about the one that got away. Four years ago, Vancouver, his two-man bobsled team started the run with a great push.
STEVE HOLCOMB: I was actually winning the race in Vancouver and I made a driving mistake, and we went from first place to sixth place in two turns.
SMITH: Holcomb blames himself. In bobsledding, any tiny mistake in the driving can cost you the fraction of a second that you need to win. But the problem in the two-man team was bigger than just one run. The U.S. team hadn't won a two-man bobsled gold medal since FDR was president. And after the last Olympics, they took a look at the sled itself. It was older than some of the athletes at the games.
HOLCOMB: The sled I had been using up until that point was actually about 19 years old. It had just been, you know, we built it every year and modified it to meet the rules. And it was one of those sleds that was fast.
SMITH: But the European teams had new sleds that were redesigned constantly, sleds built by race car designers. The Italians had the help of Ferrari; a Japanese Formula One team was working with that country's athletes. And so the United States went looking for an American race car partner.
MICHAEL SCULLY: My name is Michael Scully and I'm a creative director at BMW DesignWorks.
SMITH: BMW, a German company, but, as Scully stresses, he works in California in the North American division. Go USA. Scully knew race cars and, as it turns out, also the challenges of high speed winter sports. He was a snowboard racer in his youth. So when Scully sat down in his first bobsled, he thought he knew what speed was.
SCULLY: It was very quickly clear to me that I was not in any way prepared.
SMITH: Riding a bobsled into one of those sharp corners is kind of like having your head slammed up against the wall by a really big guy.
SCULLY: It's this very almost chaotic experience.
SMITH: Scully was convinced that there were things he could do to make the sled more like a quiet precision race car. Steve Holcomb, the driver, remembers their first meeting and Scully just bursting with ideas.
SCULLY: We can raise that up, we can make this more narrow, we could close out there we go, ahh, that's all illegal, unfortunately.
SMITH: Ah, the rules. In order to make bobsledding fair, the sport has strict standards for the sled. The weight has to be the same, the runners on the bottom carved from the same metal. The trick would be to find the wiggle room in the rules. For instance, the BMW designers moved the center of gravity. They wouldn't tell me whether it was forward or back. They adapted the steering for Steve Holcomb's style, and they made the sled more aerodynamic, smaller.
HOLCOMB: It's quite snug.
SMITH: So snug that the new sled came as a bit of a surprise for the bobsled guys with their football player-sized bodies.
HOLCOMB: It is challenging to get in. Trust me. When you're at a full sprint and you have to jump over a three foot wall, basically, of the sled and you have to get in, it's not easy.
SMITH: But as they tested the new sled, the numbers looked good. It was faster than the old one. Now, this does not guarantee a gold medal for Team USA. After all, the designers from Ferrari know the same principles of aerodynamics as the folks at BMW. But there is a psychological factor at play here. When Team USA shows up with their brand-new sled, they keep it covered, hidden from view.
SCULLY: You want people to think that you've thought of something that they haven't yet and then that drives them crazy. 'Cause they're like, why didn't I think of that?
SMITH: Adding to the mystique, the new sled has put up some remarkably fast times this season.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) 55.63. That was a winning run.
SMITH: This is footage from Universal Sports.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Never in history of bobsledding has the USA won a two-man championship gold medal.
SMITH: But they're doing it this season. Is it the sled? Is it the driver? Part of the Olympic edge is to keep your opponents guessing. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.