On the fast track
October 17, 2008
Ever look at the Utah Olympic Park (UOP) bobsled track and wonder, "How’d they do that?"
The answer is, "very carefully."
The ice doesn’t just build up as the weather turns colder or gush down waterslide-style over ice-cold concrete. No, the process is painstaking and takes place mid-autumn.
This year’s process began Oct. 10 and continued this week in order to be ready for a bevy of activity on the ice that begins Oct. 20.
With just a week and a half to get things done, the UOP has various crews working around the clock to get the ice laid. Heading up the entire process is UOP track technician David Dinger. Trained under the tutelage of ice-making expert Tracey Sitz, who was in charge of the ice track at the Calgary Olympics, Dinger began learning the delicate process before the 2002 Olympic Games. He now teaches a new generation of icemakers.
Joining him is Carl Roepke, track announcer and resident guru of all things UOP related. Together the two head up a crew of 24 people — four crews of six — who make the ice all day and all night.
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When all is said and done, the ice will measure a depth of about two inches along the almost mile-long track. That’s a lot of water, so, starting at the top of track, there is a series of water hydrants that allows crew to tap into them with hoses. Crews carefully spray the walls of the track with water throughout the day to form the ice base. A refrigeration system under the track allows the ice to freeze and shades overhanging the track keep the autumn sun from melting the ice. There are 59 thermostats along the track to monitor the temperature of the ice at any given time.
A layer of frost forms on the ice as they make it, so the crews must continually spray the water to ensure a smooth surface. Dinger estimates that crews spray about 50 or 60 passes of water each day. This goes on for seven day. Then, the final three days are dedicated to shaping the ice using chisels and scrapers. The crews are made up of males and females, construction workers, fabricators and other technicians who each holds expertise in a different area.
"We have people with all different skills and background to make up our crews," Dinger said.
The track needs to be nearly perfect to survive under the wear and tear of the winter season. A four-man bobsled with people in it can weigh up to 1,300 pounds. Add onto that four to five forces of gravity and it’s crucial for the ice to be able to withstand anything.
The Park City track is known as one of the fastest in the world. It is the fastest for the sport of luge and one of the fastest for bobsledding. Without as many technical twists and turns as the Lake Placid track, drivers are allowed to race at top speeds on the ice. It is also the highest track in the world in terms of elevation and the closest one to the Equator, which is why the temperature must be so closely monitored. Any imperfection found on the ice must be removed by every day brooms and shovels.
The track was homologated when it was built to meet standards of the International Federation of Bobsledding and Skeleton (FIBT) and the International Luge Federation (FIL). That makes the yearly ice laying much easier, so Dinger and Roepke aren’t bogged down trying to get the specifications just right every time they make new ice. Of course the ice may fluctuate in depth during the winter, but it is usually in just one spot like the starting area, and the sleds can be adjusted to meet the international regulations.
Keeping the ice groomed once the ice is laid is a 24-hour job and each day a smooth sheet of ice gleams on the track. The ice gets plenty of nicks and divots throughout the season, so Dinger is constantly out fixing the imperfections, but once the ice is made, it’s just a case of maintenance until it melts in the spring. Monday is no-sliding day in the winter so crews can give the ice a weekly overhaul.
All this work in so little time seems like a lot, but this year Dinger and Roepke are working under a strict deadline. On Oct. 20, sliders will get on the ice and it will be non-stop for the next two weeks after that.
"It’s our most intense opening month since the Games," Dinger said.
The action will start with a FIBT camp for "have-not" nations. These are nations with no ice that are trying to qualify for next winter’s Olympics. Nations like Jamaica, Belgium, Mexico, Australia and Israel will bring teams to the ice next week to start a training process that will hopefully get them to Vancouver next year. Then, in the afternoon, the ice is left to the big dogs. Olympians like Noelle Pikus-Pace, Steve Holcomb, Todd Hayes and others will hit the ice to wrap up preseason training and finish their team selection process.
The fun continues the following week. In a rare occurrence, the top American athletes will compete in the first America’s Cup competition to get in some more competition and training before the World Cup season begins. Also on the ice will be the top luge athletes who will be in town for their annual pre-season training.
This means plenty of action for fans, who will be treated to an predominantly local group of athletes competing. Holcomb, a native Parkite, qualifies as the most local of the group, but bobsledders Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming call Park City home and bobsledder Bill Shuffenhauer and Pikus-Pace and luge athlete Zach Lund and Preston Griffall are all Utahns. This also means another reason for the UOP crews to make sure the track is in tip-top shape. They, of course, want the best ice for these high-level events, but they also expect some of the biggest crowds in years to come out for the two weeks of competition and want to make sure the experience is spectacular.
In November, business as usual will begin on the track and club and developments teams will begin their weekly sliding schedules. Roepke said that he loves being able to go from a busy summer season on the water ramps and ski jumps to a winter season that starts immediately.
"We’re just so lucky," he grins. "And we’re loving it."
Later in the year, the track will host a bobsled and skeleton World Cup Feb. 9-14 and, later, youth and junior national championships. During their rare downtime, both Dinger and Roepke will make appearances at other North American tracks. Roepke is scheduled to announce at the World Cup on the new Vancouver track and both are planning to be a critical part of the 2010 Olympic Games.
All upcoming events on the UOP will be free to the public. To get a complete competition schedule, log onto http://www.olyparks.org or call 658-4200.