LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) — While preparing for this weekend’s Bodine Bobsled Challenge, Geoff Bodine’s thoughts are focused elsewhere — Vancouver, to be exact.
“We really feel like we have the equipment, the athletes to go up and win some gold medals,” Bodine said. “This is a happy part of my life, there’s no question about it. I’m very excited.”
The American men have not won an Olympic bobsled gold medal since Francis Tyler led the four-man team to victory in 1948 at St. Moritz. And it’s been nearly two decades since the sport caught Bodine’s eye at the 1992 Albertville Games.
“Our guys, Brian Shimer and Herschel Walker, were going down the runs and hitting all the walls,” Bodine said of the U.S. athletes at the 1992 Albertville Games. “They didn’t have very good finishes and I questioned why.”
Bodine, winner of the 1986 Daytona 500 and honored as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers, said his first inclination was to become a driving coach. After a bobsled ride, he quickly realized driving a bobsled was far different. He decided to build American-made sleds instead, creating the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project, designing sleds using NASCAR technology.
At the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the American men ended a 46-year Olympic medal drought, with Shimer earning bronze in the four-man just moments after teammate Todd Hays won silver.
“I started with Geoff from day one,” said Shimer, now a coach for the U.S. team. “I was real skeptical. I’d seen a lot of people come and go. I admire Geoff for his audacity, his determination and dedication. I owe my medal to Geoff.”
But four years later in Turin, there were no medals.
Steven Holcomb finished sixth, one spot ahead of Hays, in four-man; Hays was seventh and Holcomb 14th in two-man.
“It was a big disappointment. That’s racin’,” Bodine said. “If it’s racing, you’re going to go through disappointing outcomes. You lose more races than you win, it doesn’t matter what kind of race you’re in. … We thought we were in good position with the athletes, with the equipment. We found out we weren’t, and so we went to work.”
That hard work has paid off.
Holcomb, who won the four-man gold and took bronze in two-man at the world championships here last February, leads the four-man World Cup standings. John Napier, his 23-year-old teammate, earned his first career World Cup victory in two-man at Mount Van Hoevenberg in November. Napier ranks seventh in the discipline, right behind Holcomb, and is a solid fifth in four-man.
“Our results have gotten better and better and better, and now we have some of the best bobsleds and teams in the world,” Bodine said. “People are paying attention — NASCAR people, all types of racing people.”
Mike Kohn, who replaced Hays after he suffered a head injury, is trying to qualify a third bobsled for Vancouver, and he’s using a Bo-Dyn sled he didn’t have to buy.
“I hate to think what things would be like if this project hadn’t started back in 1992,” said Darrin Steele, USBSF chief executive officer. “What we’ve come to now is like night and day.”
Bodine has raised more than $1 million to help provide the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation with sleds. And although the Bodine Bobsled Challenge has struggled just to break even, it has raised awareness for the sport in the racing community.
“It’s been our mission statement. We tried to plug ourselves into the auto racing world, and we have,” Bodine said. “We’ve received a lot of goodwill, met a lot of great folks that have helped us with tools, welding, buildings.”
This year, Melanie Troxel, Boris Said, Joey Logano and Jeg Coughlin Jr. are among the 12 drivers competing this weekend.
Bodine, too, will be driving, and plans on mixing NASCAR and bobsledding again come February.
With the changes NASCAR has made to the format for the Bud Shootout at Daytona, Bodine’s eligible to race. He also hopes to make a side trip to Whistler for the Olympic bobsled races.
“The athletes have buckled down. They’re serious about this,” he said. “Hopefully, we won’t have any more disappointments. Win lose or draw, we’re going to be proud.”