Sliders rewrite record books in Park City

Track records in skeleton at Utah Olympic Park smashed after improvements

Austin Florian of the United States races down the track during Thursday's World Cup event. Florian was the highest-finishing American, ending the day in sixth place.
David Jackson/Park Record

The Utah Olympic Oval might have some competition for the “Fastest Ice on Earth” moniker after this week’s IBSF World Cup at the Utah Olympic Park. 

The record books at the park’s bobsled/skeleton track were rewritten on Thursday, as the world’s best skeleton athletes took advantage of the track’s improvements since the circuit was last in Park City in 2017. The top nine finishers in the women’s field posted times in both heats that were faster than Noelle Pikus-Pace’s previous track record of 49.74 seconds. Three men did the same against the old track record of 48.5 seconds, and four more had individual heats that were faster. The fastest time of the day for the women was Mirela Rahneva of Canada’s 49.12 seconds en route to a first-place finish overall, and the men’s best time was winner Christopher Grotheer of Germany at 48.12 seconds.

“To have track records beaten by, like, seven-tenths of a second, even our track crew were aghast at the outcome,” said Calum Clark, chief operating officer of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation. “But it’s a testament of two things. One, we’ve put the technology in, but it gave the tools of a best-in-class track crew to deliver that ice.”

But Thursday might not have happened without a mishap a few years ago. When there were mechanical issues at the track leading up to a World Cup event, the competition had to be moved from Park City to Lake Placid. That initiated new investment in the track and a total overhaul. 

“That was devastating,” Clark said. “We knew that there needed to be an overhaul, but having that catastrophic failure of our system led us to not just solve for that issue, but to look holistically. Like, what is it that we need to do to make this thing the best in class leading to a future Olympics?”

Clark explained that the track uses a direct ammonia refrigeration system that pumps ammonia up and down the track. While Clark said the system’s fundamentals were found to still be good, the controls were failing. That led to new pumping and control systems at the refrigeration plant, as well as the installation of sensors that Clark called “the game changer.”

“We have filled this track with state-of-the-art sensors and automatic, electronic valves,” he said. “Before, if the track crew saw softening in the track… you’d have to turn a valve a quarter turn or a half turn to get more or less ammonia in some sections. Now, it’s all automated. Now, it’s done based on all these metrics, and it can be controlled down at the base station.”

The difference is night and day.

“Our engineers liken it to, we were controlling the track with a hacksaw and a hammer,” Clark said. “Now, we have a scalpel, and we’re making these fine, fine changes to deliver a better quality surface.”

Skeleton athletes shattered the Utah Olympic Park’s track records during Thursday’s skeleton World Cup races.
Park Record file photo by David Jackson

The United States’ Austin Florian was one of many sliders who took advantage of the fast ice, with the added benefit of racing on home soil. Florian finished in sixth place, his best finish in a World Cup race ever. His time of 48.42 seconds in the first heat, the sixth-fastest in that round, also would have broken the old track record. He wasn’t on the World Cup circuit the last time it stopped in Park City, but he was impressed with the track. 

“The track crew’s been figuring it out and track crew’s been doing a great job making some phenomenal ice,” Florian said. “We’ve consistently more and now and now had better and better ice here every time we show up. Sky’s the limit with how fast we’re going to go.”

Florian said the top half of the track is his favorite part. 

“You accelerate like nowhere else in the world,” he said. “In 19 seconds, you get, like, 83 miles an hour. There’s nothing better that you can feel on this track. It’s so exciting.”

Florian averted disaster by the skin of his teeth on his second run. Florian’s sled popped out of position just before he stepped over the red line. He then backtracked to the start and restarted before the clock had officially started on his run.

“It’s so scary because the race is over if you keep going, but I didn’t pass the line,” he said. 

Park City’s track was perhaps a bit of an unknown heading into this week’s action because of the improvements and how much has changed with both the sport and the track since 2017. But there were indications early that there would be some fast times.

“This is kind of the first opportunity now for everyone to come back and see this,” said Matt Antoine, USA Skeleton head coach of performance. “Just seeing what the times were in training, definitely, I think everyone expected that the track record was going to get beat today. I didn’t know how many people were going to beat it, but it’s great to see those times. Kind of a couple different things come into play. Obviously, the track preparation, just the way they’ve gotten everything ready has been fantastic. And just kind of the athlete preparation, too, in terms of how they’ve been learning the track, adapting to it and trying to improve upon themselves.”

As eyes start to turn toward a potential Olympics being held on the Utah Olympic Park’s track once again in 2030 or 2034, it made an impression on the World Cup.

“We keep saying that we’re ready, willing and able,” Clark said. “We’re making these strategic investments with a vision to be ready and delivering best-in-class facilities for a future Games. This is one small step towards that goal.”


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