Elana Meyers-Taylor was at the controls of her bobsled during a test run, her helmet being buffeted by the 85 mph wind as she peeked over the front cowling.
A minute later and the test run complete, Meyers-Taylor hopped out and asked, “How’d I do?”
Meyers-Taylor wasn’t making the run on the American bobsled courses at Lake Placid, N.Y., or Park City, Utah. She was at the A2 Wind Tunnel in Mooresville.
Meyers-Taylor and the rest of the U.S. Bobsled National team, along with coaches and other team personnel, spent three days at the low-speed wind tunnel – known more for its use by NASCAR teams to test aerodynamics – on May 18-20, testing body positioning, helmet designs, even the form-fitting body suits.
The goal? To find an edge – the edge that spells the difference between winning an Olympic gold medal or no medalat all.
But the biggest aspect of getting in the wind tunnel is with the athletes themselves. In this testing, they see how vital it is for their positioning. It really opens some eyes up when they get in there, and they see that a minute change – something that can happen from one run to another, and not even thinking about it – how much it affects the run.
U.S. National head coach Brian Shimer
“The biggest thing is that we’re looking for every hundredths (of a second) possible,” said Meyers-Taylor, who has earned two Olympic medals – silver at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, and bronze at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Canada.
“I lost out on a gold medal at Sochi by a tenth of a second. Over four runs, a tenth of a second is not that much time. Every hundredths (of a second) we can find, every single thing we can make, every adjustment we can make is going to help us win medals.”
The NASCAR community’s involvement with the U.S. Bobsled National team dates back to the mid-1990s, through the work of former driver Geoff Bodine in the design and construction of the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project.
But the involvement of the A2 Wind Tunnel and another Mooresville-based firm – deBotech Inc., which specializes in carbon fiber and advanced composites – is more recent.
Both firms began working with the U.S. bobsled and skeleton teams in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Games. That work led to the U.S. teams bringing back six Olympic medals – two silver and four bronze.
However, the work of the U.S. National teams goes on year-round, either testing or competing on the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation’s World Cup tour, or in the annual IBSF World Championships.
“Everybody always thinks, ‘Oh, when’s the next Olympics?’ But we compete every single year,” said Richard Laubenstein, crew chief for the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton National teams.
“We try to get here every other year with the athletes, to see how any small tweaks you want to do work. … It’s definitely fine-tuning, but the challenge is that we’ve got different athletes in there, and we’re trying to program that muscle memory for each athlete.”
There’s so many little things that can make a big difference.
The wind tunnel work also allows technicians and coaches to check over the aerodynamics of the Bo-Dyn sleds that are now a mainstay with the U.S. Bobsled National team.
“The sleds themselves, coming off the showroom floor so to speak, this allows us to see what we’ve got,” U.S. National head coach Brian Shimer, a bronze medalist in the four-man bobsled event at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. “We’ve been making some adjustments and some changes, and found some pretty important gains that we wouldn’t have seen if we hadn’t come here.
“But the biggest aspect of getting in the wind tunnel is with the athletes themselves. In this testing, they see how vital it is for their positioning. It really opens some eyes up when they get in there, and they see that a minute change – something that can happen from one run to another, and not even thinking about it – how much it affects the run.
“A lot of them, when they come into this sport, they think, ‘My job is to just push this thing as hard as I can, then jump in and hang on.’ No – their job is all the way down the track, and they see how much it comes into play.”
Just how technical the sport has become sometimes makes Meyers-Taylor – also a three-time world champion in bobsled, including the 2015 women’s title – shake her head.
“It’s one of the things I appreciate about this sport,” Meyers-Taylor said. “There’s so many little things that can make a big difference. I’m not shaking my head in a negative sense, though; it makes me shake my head because I’m thinking, ‘Man, I wish I knew this when I first started.’
“If we knew what we know now in 2010, my first Olympics, it would’ve been lights out for that Olympics. It’s just crazy to come here and learn, and to know that we can get faster even if we’re not on the ice.”
Bill Kiser is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.