Concord’s Jim “Cheech” Garde likes to work in a gray area, where pushing the rules and testing the limits often collide with favorable results.
After achieving gold at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, he was recruited to design and build another sled for the recent winter games in Sochi, Russia.
Bob Cuneo, head engineer for the Connecticut-based Bo-Dyn, recruited his longtime friend to help create the sled. The company also hired BMW to build a sled.
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“BMW, this huge corporation, hired an engineering firm and had several big companies involved, but we built our sled right here in a garage on Mexico Road in Concord,” said Garde.
It took Garde six months to design, test and build the $260,000 sled, using multiple companies throughout the region. Garde said the sled’s carbon-fiber body and unique shape worked to the team’s advantage.
Racing bobsleds have slight nuances, but they all must meet strict specifications. Most are roughly 14 feet long and 35 inches wide and weigh about 462 pounds – about 816 pounds with the athletes aboard.
An Olympic run
During the Sochi Olympics, bobsledders Steven Holcomb, Steve Langton, Curt Tomasevicz and Army Capt. Chris Fogt powered the Bo-Dyn “Night Train 2” sled off the start in record-breaking time, 4.75 seconds, despite Holcomb’s strained calf.
Holcomb – the first U.S. bobsled driver in more than 60 years to win two medals in the same Winter Olympic Games – and his team went on to finish with the third-fastest time of the first heat (54.89 seconds) to put the team in the running for a medal.
The team later maneuvered the 18-curve track at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour, enduring forces up to five times as much as normal gravity to overtake Germany and claim bronze.
Locally, Garde has worked with several NASCAR greats, designing front-end suspensions for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joe Gibbs and Roush Fenway. But building Jeff Gordon’s Jurassic Park-themed “T-Rex” car, which won the Winston Cup at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1997, stands out as a career highlight.
“The Olympics were absolutely amazing, and it would be very hard to compare, but that car changed NASCAR,” said Garde, a Connecticut native who’s lived in Concord with his wife and three kids since 1989.
Garde designed the car with Rex Stump, a lead engineer at Hendrick Motorsports. Several of the car’s innovative modifications went on to become the norm for NASCAR teams.
Garde played an integral role in designing and building the car, putting in more hours than anyone else on the team, said Stump.
“It really comes as no surprise that Cheech has made such a big impact on bobsledding,” said Stump. “There is very little that Cheech has been involved with that didn’t succeed. I suspect his designs will make their mark on bobsledding, just like he has made his mark on NASCAR.”
Stump, who praised Garde’s work ethic and his ability to motivate people, said he became a better engineer after working with Garde.
“It is very hard to pick one thing that makes Cheech so impressive,” said Stump. “He blends creativity and practicality better than anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
A golden effort
Garde observed the Olympic runs from the starting area at the top of the course. Using feedback from Holcomb, he would tweak the sled to gain whatever competitive edge he could.
The Russian team, which won the gold medal, took roughly 250 practice runs down the track, said Garde. All other teams had fewer than half that many.
“Each run lasts less than a minute,” said Garde. “Of that, pilots are only in control of the sled for about 10 seconds. If you’re watching a long turn, you’ll see it wiggles, and it’s a constant battle of losing and finding pressure. The turns can slam the less experienced pilots around, but experienced pilots are very in tune to the tracks.”
The Sochi track was technical, with lower speeds, less pressure and three uphill slants, said Garde. The team had just two runs per day to perfect the line of the sled.
“The beauty of project stems from working with Holcolmb and his 16 years of experience,” said Garde. “The track was quite a bit different than when the team tested the track in the fall before the Olympics, which made it harder for other countries.”
The four-man bobsled race was one of the last events of the Olympics. After the team won bronze, the four men had to rush to the awards ceremony, then to the closing ceremony. On the way, they ran into Garde, hung their medals around his neck and took a quick photo.
The gesture brought Garde to tears.
“He’s been so dedicated and worked so hard, putting everything he has into this project,” said Holcomb, who considers Garde an Olympian in his own right. “His heart was in it just as much as ours was, and it was just great to see him, shake his hand and recognize all his hard work. It was just a fantastic moment.”