What it takes to maintain Utah Olympic Park’s bobsled track
This weekend is going to be big for the bobsledding and skeleton community.
There are eight World Cup events scheduled this season for bobsledders, each one serving as a qualifying event for the upcoming 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But this season’s opener in Lake Placid was too warm, forcing the four-man teams to cancel their events. Those races will be held at Park City’s Utah Olympic Park starting Friday, in addition to a slate of regularly scheduled World Cup four-man races and World Cup skeleton races. All told, more than 20 bobsled teams will compete, along with a handful of skeleton teams, in the BMW IBSF Bobsled and Skeleton World Cup on Friday and Saturday.
That means a massive week of hard work for UOP employees, as they prepare and maintain the track’s ice and take care of some of the race’s logistical problems.
On Sunday, a small crew of track workers put the finishing touches on the UOP’s bobsled, skeleton and luge track as the event. Under a cloudy ski, they tamped down snow onto the stretch of ice where the bobsleds and athletes stop. Track crewman Jeff Sipes said they hoped to build the area up to six or eight inches of solid ice for the upcoming event, which he called “a World Cup and a half.” That’s because, on top of the regularly scheduled bobsledding World Cup, unseasonably warm weather at Lake Placid forced the cancellation of another four-man bobsled World Cup, adding more teams to Friday and Saturday’s races.
Because there was no natural snow to be found around the UOP, the crew tamped scrapings from the Utah Olympic Oval onto the track, spreading it evenly with snow shovels. Later they would flood it with water and let it freeze overnight to build up a layer of ice where the bobsleds and athletes will stop.
Building the scab of ice over the break area was one of the last tasks the staff had to do, and though they were still working hard, Sunday represented the last semi-normal day before the competition.
Each year, the bobsled season begins in October, when UOP employees work around the clock spraying the course down with misting hoses. The mist sticks to the track, which is cooled by a labyrinth of tubes filled with anhydrous ammonia pumped by the UOP’s refrigeration plant, which also runs 24 hours a day.
On Sunday it was set to 15.8 degrees, and though the high that day was 49 degrees, Chris Riggs, who has worked at the track for 12 years, said the conditions weren’t bad. Ideally, the track is shaded in cool, overcast weather, though it can still keep ice up when it’s as warm as 65 or 70 degrees.
He described maintaining the ice like playing chess with the weather.
“Basically what you want to do is keep the ice as warm as you can without it being in danger of melting or keeping it too warm so it will disrupt the shape,” he said. “If you set the track really cold, what it will do is it will take all the moisture in the air and frost it up.”
Moisture sticks to the ice, creating a rough layer of frost over it, which slows the bobsleds and allows them to steer when they shouldn’t be able to.
“If the frost gets too bad, we’ll have to scrape it off,” he added. “We’ll scrape the entire track with the tools.”
After forming the initial 2- or 3-inch-thick layer of ice, scraping becomes the bulk of the job. It’s necessary to smooth and level the track, making it suitable for high-speed racing. Bumps of a couple centimeters can send bobsleds jostling, and any lip, bur or divot, especially in the breaking area, can injure luge and skeleton racers.
Maintaining the ice is such a niche job that the UOP employees build custom scrapers. They look like small steel picture frames bisected with a six-inch razorblade attached to a broom handle.
Riggs demonstrated the smoothing process by hopping onto the course and finding an area that had lost its gloss, then stripping a thin layer of ice from the tall, curving track by pulling the blade down in vertical stripes. The result is a pale blue chute with thin vertical lines going up it.
The work is exhausting. According to Riggs, it requires near full pressure over each slice to use the blades.
On Saturday, Riggs said, it took nearly 140 man hours to scrape two-thirds of the track.
That number increases when the ice is damaged, and four-man bobsleds are the biggest, most damaging sport. Riggs said bobsleds will run nearly 40 times a day, each one traveling up to 80 miles an hour through the banked sections that exert as much as 5 Gs of force over the 1,300-pound sleds.
Small divots and scrapes will be fixed with a mixture of snow and water, which is applied like concrete or patching drywall. Large waves will be misted over and scraped down.
“It’s a very odd job,” Riggs said. “It’s all focused on water if you think about it.”
When the crew isn’t scraping ice, they take care of race logistics, transporting racers and trainers, and helping run classes for newcomers to bobsled, luge and skeleton.
“Starting about tomorrow, the whole world will be here,” Riggs said. “They will be all psyched up because it’s an Olympic year. They will not be calm.”
During the event, Riggs estimates that track workers will routinely log days between 12 and 14 hours.
Sipes, who was tamping down snow into the break area, said it will be tough to keep the track in shape during the massive World Cup events, but most of the workers are excited for the challenge.
Riggs shared that sentiment.
“It’s what the track’s here for,” he said. “It’s hard, but it’s fun.”
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