Mooresville businessman Hans DeBot may be thousands of miles away from the bobsled action in Sochi, Russia, but he could be the linchpin in Team USA’s podium hopes.
DeBot, 47, whom one Olympic coach calls “the ultimate team player,” helped build the teams’ new bobsleds as well as their skeletons, the one-person sleds in which athletes speed down a course head-first.
Athletes and coaches say the new equipment has given the Americans an edge on the international stage, where races are won and lost by hundredths of a second.
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That edge comes from carbon fiber, the focus of the company DeBot founded in his Cornelius garage 17 years ago. Many NASCAR teams use it in their cars’ body panels, where they prize its strength and light weight. Bobsledders say it lowers their sled’s center of gravity, making it steer less like a minivan and more like a hot rod.
DeBot’s company, deBotech, has used carbon fiber to build parts for U.S. military aircraft, for commercial jets, for Ferraris and Lamborghinis. But perhaps no job gets him as excited as his work for Team USA.
“I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning to watch the girls’ first round (of skeleton races) live,” said DeBot (pronounced de-BOH).
And his late-night race-watching hasn’t been in vain. On Thursday, Noelle Pikas-Pace took silver in the women’s skeleton race. And Friday, John Daly took bronze for the men’s skeleton team.
The men’s and women’s bobsled races begin Sunday, and hopes are high. Four years ago in Vancouver, the U.S. won its first four-man bobsled gold medal in 62 years. DeBot will be watching the team ride sleds he helped build – and hoping they take the gold again.
‘The team to beat’
For years, Olympic-watchers say, U.S. bobsledders took a back seat to the Germans. And when you’re not winning, it’s harder to find sponsorships.
Winning brings sponsors – which brings money, which brings nicer equipment, better practice opportunities and more medals. And the cycle repeats.
“For 24 years I’ve been in the sport, and we always felt like we were always behind,” Mike Kohn, assistant coach for Team USA’s men’s bobsled team, said in a phone interview from Sochi. “We had to hope the Germans made a mistake.”
Now it’s different, said Kohn, a former Olympic bobsledder.
“For the first time, I had one of the German (guys) I used to compete with say, ‘You guys are the team to beat. ... You have superior equipment. We have to hope you make a mistake.’ ”
More like cars, less like vans
Olympic sleds have two main components: There’s the chassis, which includes the frame, suspension, steering and runners. Then there’s the body work – essentially everything you can see, including the nose, rear, seats, saddles, handles and foot-trays, even the American flag painted on the front. DeBot and the 20 employees at his 20,000-square-foot Mooresville plant work on the body using carbon fiber.
With the lighter material, technicians can redistribute the bobsled’s weight to lower its center of gravity – making it faster and easier to steer.
DeBot describes it like this: “Imagine trying to hold a stick in your hand with a weight on top. It’s hard to hold.” But move the weight lower, and the stick is easier to control.
How does that feel to a bobsledder? Imagine the difference between driving a minivan and a car, Kohn said.
“When you drive a van, it’s harder to take turns,” Kohn said. “When you take a car, it’s easier to handle because of the lower center of gravity. ... These sleds are acting more like cars and less like vans.”
A call from a bobsledder
DeBot got his start working with carbon fiber while working at a Charlotte company that designed and built the masts for racing sailboats.
After striking out on his own, he made a name for himself in the NASCAR world, building car parts for the likes of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.
One day, he got a call from Bruce Roselli, an Olympic bobsled driver. He wanted DeBot to build him a new four-man bobsled for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Excited about the potential for publicity, Roselli agreed – with a caution.
“I said, ‘I’ve seen (the sport), I like it, it’s all great, but I don’t know anything about it,’ ” DeBot said. “ ‘But I’m willing to help you.’ ”
The first thing he did was download the bobsled specifications from the Internet. Then he enlisted some of his suppliers, who donated materials.
The finished product wasn’t ready until right before the Olympic trials. DeBot had it shipped to Salt Lake City, and Roselli rode it in the trials without a single practice run.
He loved it.
‘A work of art’
DeBot’s first try at a bobsled also attracted the attention of Bob Cuneo of Connecticut-based Chassis Dynamics, who’d been building bobsleds with NASCAR veteran Geoff Bodine for nearly a decade. In 1992, they’d created a nonprofit, the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project, to provide U.S.-made sleds for the Olympic team using NASCAR technology.
“Bob Cuneo called me within heats 2 and 3,” DeBot said. “He said, ‘Hans I know I haven’t been working with you yet, but that bobsled is absolutely a work of art.’ ”
So when Cuneo and Bodine began building the “Night Train 2,” a reinvented four-man bobsled for the Sochi Olympics, they called DeBot.
So did the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation when they wanted to develop new skeletons.
And when BMW decided to rebuild the men’s and women’s Team USA two-man bobsleds, also for Sochi, once again DeBot got a call.
“Hans is as passionate about what we do as we are,” Coach Kohn said. “And that’s one of the reasons he’s been such a big part of our team and our success.”