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History of bobsledding – part 2

When the Third Olympic Winter Games were awarded to Lake Placid, there was no engineered bobsled run on the American continent. However, ballyhoo based on the bobsled successes of the Americans in the 1928 Games bore fruit in a fund-raising campaign and Stanislaus Zentzytski, a well-known German engineer and run-builder, designed a course down the precipitous sides of Mount Van Hoevenberg, near Lake Placid. The mile-and-a-half run, which was built with New York State aid, is still the only bobrun in America. It is maintained by the New York State Conservation Department for racing and public riding.

In its original state the Mount Van Hoevenberg run had 26 major curves and has an average drop of 10 per cent, ranging from 872 per cent to 15 per cent. Straightaways are 6’% feet wide, with the width on curves running from 10 to 22 feet. Some curves are 30 feet high, with nearly perpendicular walls. These walls are built of stone, while the straightaways are troughed with a back-fill of earth on each side. The run is iced with a mixture of snow and water which is plastered on with a trowel, templates being used as guides so that the curves will be built to engineered plans. After the run is iced, a coating of frosted snow is spread over it so that the runners on the sleds will bite in and maintain their course.

The upper half-mile of the original run was abandoned in 1938 for economy reasons. The resulting run is 5,013 feet long from starting line to finish. There is an intermediate starting point at the 2,323-foot mark and it is from this point that most novice and early winter senior races start.

The bobsleds themselves have been developed greatly since the first racing sleds. The initial step to gain speed was the placing of iron runners on the bottoms of the seld sides. These runners, used as late as the 1932 Olympics, were quarterround strips of iron of unrestricted width, usually about three-quarters of an inch. Yankee ingenuity, however, quickly devised a plate runner inserted in wooden shoes, leaving about 2 inches of the plate exposed.

These plate runners were then ground down to 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch and very nearly V’d on the bottom in order to reduce to a minimum the wearing surface on the ice and snow tracks. Different alloys of steel also were experimented with and the final formula was a fine grade of tool steel.

When the American sleds were equipped with these thin plate runners in the 1936 Olympic Games, the F.I.B.T. ruled against their use in all future races and also banned the V-type runner. While V-type plate runners had increased the speed of the sleds by about 12 seconds for the 1%-mile course, they also had a tendency to cut in on the run and damage the track. This was particularly true on the curves where big chunks would be gouged out of the ice covering. The F.B.I.T. stipulated that in the future no runner could be less than 8 millimeters wide for the 2-man sleds and 10 mm. for the 4-man. It also ruled that the bottoms of the runners must be true arcs of circles of the above-mentioned diameters.

The next development in the sled was the substitution of the steel plank for the wooden plank. This is the plank that connects the front and rear runners and on which the men sit. The steel plank was found to be much mote flexible than the wooden type, allowing the sled to flex slightly when rounding curves, thus cutting down the friction between the runners and the ice. This important feature may be credited to the Linney brothers, Bill and Bob, of Lyon Mountain, N.Y., who ruled United States bobsledding circles in the late 1930’s and 1940’s.

To these mechanically-minded engineers also must go the credit for the next development in the sled. This was the installation of push-handles to insure a fast start. Previous to this innovation, in races with running starts, 2 of the 4-man crew sat on the sled while the other 2 pushed their backs and jumped on the sled after crossing the starting line. The handles are U-bars welded to the sides of the sled.

This flying start cuts seconds from the elapsed time of a race. When the Linneys sprang this feature on the racers during the 1939 season, every other sled became so equipped virtually overnight, but the jump the Linneys obtained by practice enabled them to out-distance the other teams.

The next innovation, the equipping of each runner of the sled with knee-action so that each runner acts independently of the others, is credited to Swiss manufacturers. This resulted in less loss of speed on curves because of the reduced friction of the runner. This feature first appeared in 1947 and all racing sleds were quickly equipped with the gadgets.

The final development of the racing sled into a mile-a-minute quarter-ton mogul of steel and aluminum is of recent vintage. This is the streamlining of the cowl of the sled. Although crude attempts had been made before the 1948 Olympic Games without marked success, repeated trials have succeeded in completely streamlining the sled and now all sleds have streamlined cowls.

Modern racing sleds are steered by either of 2 devices: by ropes attached to the front runners or with a wheel, as in an automobile. The rope steering is popular with European drivers, who claim that this type is more sensitive in detecting a skid and in bringing the sled out of a skid. American drivers use the wheel type exclusively, and this style is becoming popular in Europe.

The cost of a racing sled runs from approximately $600 for a machine-shop job, in which most of the work is by the prospective owner, to $1,250 for the best type factory-built European sled. Each sled should have at least 1 extra set of runners and some drivers carry several sets. These extra runners cost about $100 per set for the material and machine work.

Sled runners are built so they can be replaced in a matter of minutes if conditions require. Each driver has his own ideas as to the best length of runners and of the amount of roch they should have and where the most rock should be placed in the runner.

Even after the sled is built and ready for use there are always minor changes which the driver will want made, so that after every race the sled is taken from the run and tinkered with by the crew. They polish runners, change the position of the rock, etc.

This evolution of the present day racing sled has resulted in speeds as high as 89 miles per hour. When one realizes that the crew is sitting about 8 to 10 inches above the ground on a sled weighing over 500 pounds, travelling at close to 90 miles per hour, with the safety of the whole crew resting principally on the driver and, to a lesser extent, the brakeman, and where a single wrong move on the driver’s part possibly can result in a serious accident, he sees why the sport of bobsledding has been called “The Champagne of Thrills.”

The “bobsled” is so called because of the fact that in races the crew members other than the driver are called on to “bob” on straightaways to increase speed. This is a maneuver which with a well-trained crew can make a sled literally jump forward. The No. 2 and No. 3 men take orders from the brakeman, who calls for this move on long straightaways. These men, along with the brakeman, bend backward until almost lying supine and at the command “bob” jump forward into a sitting position, all acting in unison. At the brakeman’s command they all bend backward again and repeat the maneuver. In a well-trained crew this can cut seconds from the elapsed time of a race. But the movements, must be precise, with the whole crew acting in unison-otherwise the opposite effect is attained.