Guided by driver Steven Holcomb and powered by NASCAR engineering, Team Night Train survived a vicious turn and won the U.S. its first men's bobsledding gold in six decades
The members of Team Night Train named the curve, and last Saturday they tamed it. One day in February 2009, with teams from around the world making four-man bobsled training runs at the Whistler Sliding Centre, four out of eight sleds crashed on Curve 13, a subtle twist to the right that follows hard on a head-snapping, near-90-degree bank to the left. Someone on the United States 1 sled, driven by Steven Holcomb, ripped open a brown bag from their order-in sushi and scrawled CURVE 50/50 on it—a calculation of the chances of getting through 13 right side up. Holcomb taped the sign to the wall of the track, giving the turn an ominous label that officials from the international bobsled federation hoped wouldn't stick.
Sorry, guys. During the Olympics, Curve 13 bedeviled the best drivers in the world. In one run Germany's André Lange, the most decorated driver in Olympic bobsled history—he won his fourth career gold on Feb. 21, in two-man—fishtailed through it. Russian pilot Alexsandr Zubkov, who took silver in the four-man in 2006, flipped over. Holcomb wasn't perfect through 13, but he kept the Night Train, named in honor of its black finish, upright and blazed to the U.S.'s first four-man bobsled gold medal since 1948. Relatively speaking, the rest of the field should have affixed STUDENT DRIVER decals to their cowlings. "I watched a lot of video," Holcomb, 29, said after the clinching run last Saturday. "Getting through 13 clean is all about Curve 12. You have to take a low line through 12."
But it was more than mastery of one curve that made the Night Train golden. Not once in four runs did Holcomb's sled, which set track records on each of its first two heats, clock the fastest start time. Yet three times Holcomb led the field after the first seven of the 16 curves. Holcomb's sled gains speed because his three pushers load in earlier than most teams do and get in more smoothly and efficiently. First, Justin Olsen, 22, who played a year of football at Air Force before leaving the academy, boards behind Holcomb. Then Steve Mesler, 31, a former decathlete at Florida, drops behind Olsen like someone vaulting over the side of a moving convertible into the child safety seat. Almost simultaneously, the strongest of these strong men, Curt Tomasevicz, 29, a former Nebraska linebacker, hops in the back of the sled.
Holcomb's win ended a U.S. drought in the event, but it was no fluke. U.S. bobsledding got a jolt in 1992 with the start of the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project: Former Daytona 500 winner Geoff Bodine, frustrated that U.S. sledders had to raise their own money to buy second-hand German sleds, cofounded a nonprofit company to design and finance American-made sleds with proprietary American technology.
The NASCAR-inspired engineering began to pay off at the 2002 Games, when the U.S. won the four-man silver and bronze, its first medals in the event since 1956. Then last March, Holcomb, a former Alpine skier who took up bobsledding in 1998, led the Night Train to the first world championship for the U.S. in 50 years. Add the 2010 World Cup title that Holcomb & Co. won in January and this Olympic gold, and the Night Train is primed to make the U.S. a bobsledding powerhouse. "Oh, yeah," Holcomb said when asked last week if he'll be at the Sochi Games in 2014. "I'll hopefully be like André Lange, doing this when I'm 37 or 38. I'm a lifer." No 50/50 about it.
Photograph by Bob Martin
CURVE BUSTERS Pilot Holcomb and pushers Olsen, Tomasevicz and Mesler (inset, left to right) rocketed through four runs on the world's fastest course, setting two track records and managing not to spill on the tricky 13th turn.
[See caption above]