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The ultimate sliding machine

U.S. two-man bobsled team, with help from sled created by BMW in Bergen County, wins bronze medal

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Looking for a better ride, the uS olympic Committee turned to DesignWorks uSA, a BMW-owned company, to help redesign the bobsled it uses in international competition.
Looking for a better ride, the uS olympic Committee turned to DesignWorks uSA, a BMW-owned company, to help redesign the bobsled it uses in international competition. - (COURTESY BMW GROUP)

Editor's note: Steven Holcomb, driving a bobsled designed by Bergen County-based BMW, on Monday helped the U.S. earn its first medal in the two-man bobsled in 62 years. He and pusher Steven Langton earned the bronze. Holcomb will defend his gold medal in the four-man bobsled on Saturday. The women's bobsled competition begins on Tuesday.

Michael Scully didn't figure it would be a big deal.

After all, when you're a veteran alpine sportsman and race car enthusiast — let's be honest, when you work as a creative consultant for BMW — a trip down a bobsled track shouldn't be a jarring experience.

But when Scully, shortly after being asked to redesign the two-man bobsled used by the U.S. Olympic team, took his first ride, he learned the first lesson that would influence his bobsled design:

Bobsledding — unlike, say, figure skating — is anything but graceful.

Scully, who has sat in the driver's seat of countless high-speed vehicles in his 18- year career with DesignWorks USA, a BMW-owned creative consultancy, said he was astounded by the violence when he went down the track at the Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, N.Y., at 75 miles per hour.

"It was definitely jumping into the deep end," he said. "It was a formative experience for me."

One that has helped him and his team build a better bobsled.

The BMW-sponsored Bobsled Development Project began in 2011, when BMW of North America, which has been located in Bergen County for more than two decades, was approached by the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Association about taking its long-standing sponsorship of the U.S. bobsled team to a more technical level.

With Scully as lead designer, DesignWorks USA spearheaded the project, which resulted in the production of six two-man bobsleds over the past three years.

The partnership between a company known for designing technically superior luxury vehicles and an organization bolstered by high-speed performance was a fantastic fit from the very start, Scully said.

While the redesigned sleds you'll see at this year's Winter Games will look sleeker and smaller than in years past, each still weighs the requisite 375 pounds dictated by Olympic regulations. The sleds also feature redesigned interior spaces, built with the exact physical measurements of the athletes who will ride them in mind. With updated steering systems and repositioned centers of gravity, BMW's bobsleds will be able to take the icy turns at the Sanki track outside of Sochi at speeds reaching 85 miles per hour.

The sled is one of the reasons why Holcomb won bronze in the two-man and aims to repeat in the four-man. It will continue the run of success the BMW sleds have had.

The new bobsleds already had proven themselves to be worthy additions to the Olympic team's fleet, winning both the men's and women's U.S. teams a combined total of 18 medals in the 2013-2014 World Cup bobsled competition.

"The most rewarding results were when the women's team actually swept the podium in Park City, Utah," said Scully, who called the December 2013 victory "a fantastic debut" for BMW's new and improved bobsleds.

Winning gold at Sochi would also be a great victory for BMW, as well as Scully, who said, should the sleds perform decisively, he might expect "some form of flattery." Whether that flattery will come in the form of copycat sleds under the skintight suits of foreign bobsledders is yet to be seen.

As for this year's competition, the sleds of the U.S. opponents aren't likely to be far behind their BMW counterparts. The Italian team, for one, will be riding bobsleds built by Ferrari. And the suspension systems for the U.K.'s sleds recently received an overhaul from British Formula One team McLaren. But Scully believes that the stiff competition is part of what made the BMW bobsled project worthwhile.

"That's what makes it exciting," said Scully, "That it's continually changing and evolving."

The Bobsled Development Project has also been a huge source of excitement for BMW. This latest application of the company's extensive technical knowledge follows on the heels of several other projects developed for U.S. Olympic teams leading up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

As a part of BMW's "technology transfer initiative," the company developed a velocity measurement system that is used by U.S. track and field athletes and coaches to calculate and analyze performance metrics — namely, the intricacies of a long jump.

BMW also collaborated with USA Swimming on a system that tracks and analyzes swimmer's movements underwater. That technology is now a permanent fixture at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Of course, when BMW isn't designing new technologies for the Olympics, it's focusing on what it does best — building cars.

While commonly known as a German manufacturer, BMW has operated in the U.S. as BMW of North America since 1975. The company's corporate headquarters and technical training center are located in Woodcliff Lake, and its import car center is located in Port Jersey.

Kenn Sparks, a communications and business spokesman for BMW North America said the company employs more than 1,100 people in the state. Few of them, however, get a chance at riding a bobsled.

Elizabeth Palermo is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@njbiz.com

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