BMW designer Michael Scully had raced cars and snowboards, so he wasn’t expecting any surprises when took his first ride in a bobsled as part of the German automaker’s efforts to help the U.S. team succeed at the Sochi Games.
About a minute later, after the “incredible violence and vibration” of a 70 mile per hour (113 kilometer per hour) run down the icy track at Lake Placid, New York, Scully understood the challenges he faced in creating a better bobsled.
As part of its six-year sponsorship with the U.S. Olympic Committee, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG assigned Scully with his 20 years of experience designing race cars to help American men win their first two-man bobsled Olympic medal since 1952. His first task was to “quiet the chaos” that made his first bobsled ride so memorable.
“Just the brutality and the violence of it was something that really left an impact on me,” Scully, 42, said in an interview at the BMW Group DesignworksUSA studio in Newbury Park, California, about 45 miles (71 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles. “As a designer, it’s your responsibility to look at those experiences and try to leverage those into design directions.”
While engineers at BMW headquarters in Munich were helping the three-time defending champion German two-man bobsled team prepare for the Feb. 7-23 Olympics in Russia, Scully and his BMW team were doing the same for American bobsledders amid the palm trees and surfboards of southern California.
Olympic bobsledding has been dominated by men from Alpine nations such as Germany, Switzerland and Italy since it debuted at the first Winter Games in 1924. At 2010 in Vancouver, the American men won their first gold medal in the four-man event since 1948. U.S. men have not won gold in a two-man sled since 1936.
Using computer design tools, it took 69 virtual designs for Scully to create his new sled. A prototype was then built with the lightweight carbon fiber BMW uses in its latest all-electric vehicles, then tested in a wind tunnel.
BMW usually does its wind-tunnel testing in Germany. Since engineers at BMW headquarters were working with the German bobsledders, Scully’s team signed a confidentiality agreement with the Americans that barred sharing information -- so the testing was done in the U.S.
The resulting two-man sleds, six of which were built for the U.S. men’s and women’s teams, are shorter and have vastly different weight distribution than their predecessors -- sleds built starting in 1992 as part of the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project funded by Nascar driver Geoff Bodine and used in the Olympics from 1994 to 2010.
“My previous sled was sort of built like a tank, it was built to withstand crashes,” Elana Meyers, who won a bronze medal as a brakeman on a two-woman sled at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and now is the driver of one of the U.S. women’s sleds, said in a telephone interview. “These new BMW sleds are built to go fast and to push the envelope.”
The International Bobsleigh Federation’s 74-page rulebook mandates a minimum weight of 170 kilograms (375 pounds) for an empty two-man bobsled. Scully’s challenge was to redistribute that weight on the sleds.
His sleeker design moved weight from the front to the center of the sleds, improving handling and maintaining momentum during all the high-speed directional changes on the track.
“One thing I really like about the BMW is we’re able to put weight in the right places with the carbon-fiber body,” U.S. driver Steve Holcomb said in a telephone interview. “This sled is 45-50 kilos lighter. You have to add that weight back in, but we can decide where to put it.”
Holcomb, who is 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and weighs 220 pounds, had to make some adjustments jumping into the smaller sled. After that, he won the first four two-man races on the World Cup circuit this season. At Lake Placid on Dec. 14, the U.S. men swept all three podium spots in a two-man race for the first time in World Cup history.
Holcomb won this World Cup season’s two-man bobsled championship, finishing 35 points ahead of Switzerland’s Beat Hefti for the title.
Holcomb, 33, who piloted the four-man sled in Vancouver to victory, was the driver when Scully -- “screaming the entire way,” Holcomb said -- took his test run in October 2011.
Holcomb joined Darrin Steele, chief executive officer of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, in giving feedback to Scully after the first prototype was tested in March 2012.
“With the BMW sleds, the idea is let’s pick a design we know is fast and make it faster, and you do that with workmanship,” Steele said in a telephone interview. “The BMW brand, they’re pretty precise in everything they do, having them scrutinize the different parts and pieces was good.”
Scully, who was on the Burton Snowboards junior team as a teenager in New Hampshire and raced open-cockpit cars until 2010, said lessons learned from designing a bobsled can be translated into innovations on BMW cars.
“Designing something that has to experience so many varied positions as it goes down the track, that’s a new level of aerodynamic challenge compared to what a car would have experienced typically,” said Scully, the creative director at Designworks.
Scully and Trudy Hardy, head of marketing for BMW of North America, declined to say how much the bobsled design program cost BMW. Hardy said it grew out of the six-year sponsorship deal the carmaker signed with the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2010.
The Associated Press reported in 2010 that BMW’s USOC sponsorship was for a total of $24 million. BMW spokeswoman Stacy Morris said she could not confirm that figure, though she said in an e-mail that “our Olympic partnership marketing is our biggest marketing investment for BMW in the U.S. this year.”
Hardy said American success in the bobsled can help BMW sell cars.
“I believe it has a positive influence on the brand,” Hardy said in a telephone interview. “It’s a really meaningful activation and it gets in the hearts and minds of customers.”
Meyers, Holcomb and Steele all said the new sleds are just one element in creating a winning Olympic team, along with the talents of the two competitors. They agreed, however, that all the BMW design work can make a significant difference.
“Races are won by hundredths of a second,” Steele said. “It’s maddening to think after all this we’ve maybe improved only a tenth of a second, but a tenth of a second over four runs is pretty significant.”