At Utah Olympic Park, Otherwise Sane
Individuals Can Learn to Drive Bobsleds
Ensconced in a shell of fiberglass and steel, I stare straight forward, my heart hammering at a staccato pace. Quivering hands grip steering-cable D-rings. I tug at each, but nothing budges. The runners remain locked because I sit at a dead stop. That will soon change.
Ahead lies a twisty, half-mile chute of ice-covered concrete. Through it, my banged-up bobsled will hurdle at speeds touching 60 mph. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I realize that only skill and experience separate me from a gurney ride to the ER. I, of course, have neither.
“You ready?” one of the attendants asks.
“Sure,” I lie. “Let ‘er rip.”
Ever since I saw the John Candy movie, “Cool Runnings,” about the Jamaican Bobsled Team, I’ve wondered what it would be like to pilot one of these gravity-powered bullets. The Utah Olympic Park (UOP) has provided me with an opportunity to do just that.
Located near Park City, UOP was built for the 2002 Games. Besides the bobsled track, it offers ski jumps, freestyle hill and museums covering skiing and Olympic history. Today, the UOP provides a training ground for winter athletes, which include camps for otherwise sane folks who think that careening down a frozen trench might be fun.
“You could crash,” instructor Stephan Bosch tells us up front. “It’s not likely if you do what I tell you. If you do the opposite, you probably will crash. In bobsledding anything can happen.”
Born in Germany, Bosch started bobsledding over 20 years ago. In 1994, he missed qualifying for the German Olympic team by 1/100th of a second. Bosch moved to the United States, hoping to make the American team. He’s still hoping. In the meantime, he has been working at Utah Olympic Park where he drives passenger rides and is responsible for sled maintenance and safety.
Although the school can take six students per session, there are only three of us enrolled in today’s class. Bosch asks each of us why we’re here.
Ryan Pezely from Salt Lake City, says he has wanted to bobsled since he saw Hershel Walker do it in the Olympics. “This is a rare opportunity for me to do something elite athletes do.”
John Sears from Franktown, Colorado, says he likes going fast in anything he does. “Just to be able to say I was able to get in a bobsled and drive down a run will be fantastic.”
And my excuse for being here?
“My wife suggested I do it,” I tell Bosch, “right after she upped the coverage on my life insurance policy.”
We will drive two-man bobsleds, with the pilot in front and brakeman in the back. Each weighs about 375 pounds. When new, they would cost more than a well equipped Lexus, but these are far from new. Mine bears liberal amounts of duct tape.
Dating back to the late 1800s, the first bobsled runs were built from blocks of ice piled on slopes. Today, tracks are molded from concrete and laced with cooling tubes. There are only four in North America – Park City, Calgary, Lake Placid and the new deadly fast one at Whistler Blackcomb.
“Nobody builds a track without getting the Olympics,” laughs Bosch.
UOP’s track offers 15 turns over its 0.8-mile length, but we will not launch from the top. Our rides begin at the Junior Start, located at the full-course’s Curve Six.
“We had a deer jump into Six,” employee Tyler Beck tells us. “He went down the track at about 20-30 mph. We got him out and he shook it off. Fifteen minutes later, the deer walked back up and did it again. We like to think it was on purpose.”
To keep from doing our own deer-like slides, my compatriots and I strap cleats to the bottom of our shoes for a bottom-to-top hike up the course. Turn by turn, Bosch tells us where to run and where to steer.
“Curve 15 is the finish curve,” he says. “Where you see out to the straightaway, you start steering down a little bit.”
At Curve 14, we should pull softly when we reach an expansion joint. Curve 13, he assures us, is relatively easy as long as we get the entry right. That means negotiating Curve 12 correctly. It’s the toughest turn on the track, and we’ll soon discover that coming through on target is like trying to lace a needle with 60 mph thread.
“It’s a big curve. Don’t let the sled ride up. You see the red dots up here?” he asks, pointing to two egg-size circles. “You have to start squeezing on the right side handle here. You want to go straight with the curve. If you go to the right wall, you’re not going to have much fun, believe me.”
We cover the nuances of Curves 11 through Seven as we continue up the track. Just beyond Curve Six, our sleds await, lined up like cars on a freeway onramp.
Unlike competitions where driver and brakeman push their sleds, we start already seated. I strap on my helmet and squeeze into the driver’s position. My brakeman, a fellow student, slithers in behind.
The PA system blares our names, telling nonexistent spectators who we are. I take a deep breath. It’s possibly the last one I’ll enjoy for 50+ seconds.
The attendants push and we start moving down the track. Curve Six, our first turn, comes slow and easy. It’s like driving through a school zone. Speed builds and Curve Seven comes swiftly.
Walls flash by, seemingly at the speed of light. Runners scream, steel against ice. Their zing becomes a raspy, high-pitched whine.
Like an ice cube in a martini shaker, I feel jolted and jerked. There is no resting, no thinking. I focus straight down the track, praying that I don’t tip or flip. It’s a fleeting prayer – no time for an “amen.”
The bobsled whips through the turns they call the Labyrinth. As speed mounts, the sled rides higher, nailed to the wall by centrifugal force.
I swing through 10, clear 11 and head toward Curve 12, the crux of the run. With the track a blur of featureless ice, there’s no way I’m going to see expansion joints or red dots.
The sled rides upward on a trajectory toward Great Salt Lake. I pull the steering cable. At 60 mph, a little pressure begets a lot of turn. In my adrenaline-crazed state, I jerk too hard. Way too hard.
We descend, reaching the bottom of the track well before the transition into Curve 13. That can only mean one thing.
The bobsled whacks the track like a cue ball banking off a concrete pool table. We continue, caroming through Curves 14 and 15. Finally, a one-minute lifetime after we started, the sled cruises across the finish line and coasts to a stop. I pry myself out, grinning like a chrome-toothed Buick.
I didn’t tip! I didn’t flip! It wasn’t pretty, but I did it! I’ve joined the elite group of individuals who have actually driven a bobsled. Just like that deer, I look forward to improving on the next run.