Michael Scully has raced cars and snowboards, so he wasn’t expecting any surprises when he took his first ride in a bobsled in October 2011. For the BMW designer, who has 20 years experience building speed machines, the minute-long, 70-mile-an-hour run down the icy track at Lake Placid, N.Y., was a hair-raising revelation. “Just the brutality and the violence of it was something that really left an impact on me,” says Scully, 42, the creative director of the BMW Group DesignworksUSA studio in Newbury Park, Calif. “As a designer, it’s your responsibility to look at those experiences and try to leverage those into design directions.”
BMW, which has a six-year sponsorship deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), assigned Scully to help the American men win their first Olympic gold medal in two-man bobsled since 1936 at the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Alpine countries have all but dominated the sport since it made its debut at the 1924 Olympics, though U.S. women have won medals at the last three Winter Games.
Scully’s first task was to “quiet the chaos” that had him screaming through his first bobsled ride. It took him 69 tries using computer design tools to come up with a blueprint. A prototype was built with the same type of lightweight carbon fiber that’s in BMW’s newest all-electric cars, then tested in a wind tunnel.
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, whose design dates to 1992. “My previous sled was sort of built like a tank, to withstand crashes,” says Elana Meyers, who won a bronze medal in the women’s event at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and will be competing at Sochi. “These new BMW sleds are built to go fast and to push the envelope.”
The International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation mandates a minimum weight of 170 kilograms (375 pounds) for an empty two-man bobsled. Scully moved weight from the front to the center of the sleds to improve handling and to help maintain momentum during the directional changes on the track. The BMW-badged bobsleds proved themselves recently in Königssee, Germany, where Steven Holcomb of the U.S. clinched the World Cup title. Meyers finished second overall among the women.
Scully says the lessons he’s gleaned from the three-year process of overhauling the U.S. bobsled can be applied to 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,” he says.
BMW of North America declined to say how much it spent on the bobsled design program. The Associated Press reported in 2010 that the company’s USOC sponsorship was for $24 million, a figure BMW would not confirm. Spokeswoman Stacy Morris noted in an e-mail that “our Olympic partnership marketing is our biggest marketing investment for BMW in the U.S. this year.” The automaker footed the bill for a documentary about Scully’s work on the sleds that aired on NBC in January and is rolling out a series of complementary TV ads. “This gives them some space outside the clutter of auto ads, the ones with beautiful scenes of cars driving down winding roads,” says Jim Andrews, senior vice president at IEG, a sponsorship consulting firm in Chicago. “It’s a compelling story,” he adds, reinforcing key attributes of the BMW brand, such as speed, performance, and precision.
Darrin Steele, chief executive officer of the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation, is hoping to see positive results at Sochi from Scully’s work. “Races are won by hundredths of a second,” Steele says. “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.”