NAC to bobsled into history
November 25, 2006
A new sled is headed down the Utah Olympic Park’s icy track. It’s sleek and it’s red and it’s about to make bobsled history.
For the first time, a disabled bobsled will forerun a World Cup bobsled race on Dec 8-9.
The path to this historic event was bit longer than a run down the track. It is the culmination of athletes, officials, administrators and manufacturers that hope to see this sport in the Paralympics very soon.
The National Ability Center (NAC) began the process a few years ago with creation of a special sled and qualified disabled athletes to drive it. They are now spearheading an initiative to make bobsled a Paralympic sport by the Vancouver Games in 2010.
The sled was created by veteran NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine. He began making sleds in 1992 after learning that American bobsledders were racing in European sleds.
"I’m a patriotic guy," Bodine said. "Americans should use American equipment."
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After forming the Bo-Dyne Racing Project, his sleds were used in 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympics. A few years ago, the NAC contacted Bodine to see if he would be able to make an adapted sled. Bodine was eager to contribute to an organization that helped people participate in sports and immediately agreed. It wasn’t until he went back to the shop that he realized his work team was already overloaded, so he took on the task himself.
"I always designed and built my own race cars throughout my career," Bodine said. "I said, ‘I can do it, it’s my sled.’"
Bodine has worked with the Make-a-Wish Foundation for 20 years, and so he said he was already familiar of the needs of the disabled.
"I had an idea of what was needed to make bobsleds more comfortable for these athletes," Bodine said.
It turned out to be a bit more daunting than he had anticipated, but along with the help of his sons, he was able to create a sled complete with NASCAR-like seats, shoulder harnesses, seatbelts, leg restraints, removable head rests and a rollbar for safety. The safety factor was the most important, as the mixture of a high-speed sport and already disabled athletes could spell disaster in a crash. Bodine even added an extra Velcro chest strap for those with limited movement in their torso.
"I tried to accommodate everyone that might get in the bobsled," Bodine said.
Some red paint and a few decals and the new bobsled was ready to start flying down the track.
"The thing looks like a small race car," mused Bodine.
Meanwhile at the NAC, flyers had been posted for bobsled as a new disabled sport. According to NAC Outreach Manager Jessica Kunzer. About eight athletes committed to the sport and have been participating for three years.
"Some people just have the feel for it," Kunzer said.
From that group of athletes, Matt Profitt and Aaron Laningham emerged as top participants.
Kunzer says that bobsled is the perfect disabled sport, because it is controlled by hands and easily adaptable from the able-bodied sport. It’s also expensive. Bodine is hoping to create sleds for any interested countries, although to compete he envisions the sleds staying state-side, where racers could converge and draw for a sled to race in to keep things fair and costs down.
"Hopefully, we’ll be a big part of this sport," Bodine said. "I have a passion to help people. To be part of a sport I love and introduce it to the Paralympics is very rewarding."
But the biggest obstacle at the outset was how to capture that worldwide interest.
When it was determined that the UOP would host a World Cup bobsled stop after a three-year hiatus, the NAC saw this as the perfect opportunity to introduce their initiative to the world. Seven countries need to field teams in order for bobsled to become an Olympic sport, so the sport needs to garner attention quickly.
The NAC approached the International Bobsled and Toboggan Federation (FIBT) with their idea and got the response they had hoped for.
"We found out in October, NAC chief executive officer and co-founder Meeche White said. "Basically we asked the UOP and they gave us an overwhelming, ‘yes!’"
Laningham, a driver, and Profitt, a brakeman, will serve as forerunners in the World Cup race.
And so, in two weeks, those that dared to dream the sport could become a reality will gather to witness it happening. The NAC, Bodine, local supporter Robert Raymond and International Paralympic Committee President Phil Craven will all be on hand.
"As important as this is for the NAC bobsled program, it’s even more important to the entire world and the Paralympics, because this is a launching pad for us," Kunzer said.
Now that the sled is preparing for its international debut, Bodine is beside himself.
"This is a little more special," Bodine said. "I was hands on. I got my hands dirty. I almost feel more rewarded by this event. I want to see this sled go down the run."
The supporters are hoping that fans at the track and the greater media audience will be inspired to join the crusade the keep the sport on the track.
"The excitement will only help us in garnering support for other countries to join in," Kunzer said.
With just three years between now and Vancouver all of the interested parties are doing as much as they can to help find that support. Bodine says cooperation between countries and those with know-how in the sport stepping up to the challenge is paramount. He says a lot people have heard about the sled and are waiting for the World Cup to see how it works.
"We don’t’ have much time, but we can make it happen," Bodine said.
The NAC athletes will forerun the World Cup bobsled races which will be held Dec 8-9 at the UOP track. The forerunning races will be held at 1:45 and 5:45 p.m. on Dec.8 and 3:45 on Dec. 9. The event is free to the public and parking may be found in the main lot. For more information, call the NAC at 649-3991 or visit www. Nac1985.org.