REBECCA ROBERTS, Host:
Those auto makers might want to consider another revenue stream - like, say, bobsleds. The Bobsled World Championships take off next month in Lake Placid, New York. The American team will be riding a new generation of sleds designed by engineers who once built cars for NASCAR. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, the project is helping the U.S. compete in a sport that's long been dominated by the Europeans.
BRIAN MANN: Lake Placid's Olympic sled track snakes for a mile down the side of a mountain, a twisting chute of ice. A bright-yellow, bullet-shaped sled whips around the banking turn. When U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer first raced here in the '90s, Americans were buying their sleds second-hand from the Europeans, or cobbling them together from scraps.
Mr. BRIAN SHIMER (Coach, U.S. Bobsled Team): Usually in the past, when they're built one at a time in a garage using spare parts, you might build one. Build a second one you think is identical, and it'll be a second faster than the other one.
MANN: Or a second slower. At the '92 Winter Olympics, Shimer got creamed by the better-funded Germans and Swiss. His struggles caught the attention of a very different kind of racer.
Unidentified Announcer #1: You're riding down for the finish. Checkered flag is out, and you are with Geoff Bodine as he wins the 1986 Daytona 500.
MANN: Geoff Bodine, one of the top NASCAR drivers in the U.S., was watching the '92 Olympics on TV. He says it was clear the Americans didn't stand a chance.
Mr. GEOFF BODINE (Former Winner, Daytona 500): My first thought was maybe I could help be a driving coach. Well, I ended up coming up here to Lake Placid, rode on the old track, and realized real quick driving a race car and a bobsled are pretty different.
MANN: So, Bodine started looking at the way these sleds are built. His crew developed a more aerodynamic shell and rebuilt the American sled suspension systems.
Mr. BODINE: We've changed the way sleds are built around the world. That's really - we're proud of that. We've brought a lot of NASCAR technology into it.
MANN: That initial research cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And each new sled that rolls off the line comes with a price tag of roughly 40 grand. To pay the bills, Bodine recruited friends, like drag racer Bob Vandergrif, to drive the new bobsleds in a series of sponsored exhibition races.
Mr. BOB VANDERGRIFF (Drag Racer): The top fuel dragster and the bobsled, they have a lot of the same steering characteristics. You really have to think about where you're headed, and not where you're at. If you try and drive where you're at, you're going to get in trouble.
MANN: This race will air on a motor sport cable channel called SpeedTV. But with the cameras rolling, Vandergriff does get into trouble.
Unidentified Announcer #2: Oh, we've got an 81 on the X of the 10. Vandergriff just cannot hold it together as he comes through, pulling a Dukes of Hazard from the straightaway from 10...
MANN: His sled flips and grinds along the track upside-down for half a mile. But Vandergriff climbs out uninjured. Despite occasional bumps and bruises, support from the car-racing world seems to be paying off. Brian Shimer rode an early version of the NASCAR-inspired sled to a bronze-medal win at the Salt Lake Olympics, the first medal for the U.S. team since 1956.
Mr. SHIMER: We still struggle a bit to be at the same level as the Germans do with their R&D and the money that they put into their program. We're not quite there yet, but we'd like to be, because I think we need to get even get faster.
MANN: The next big test will come in February, when the world's best sledders and best bobsled designs come to Lake Placid to compete. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.
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.