By Associated Press
Thursday, February 25, 2010; D05
WHISTLER, B.C. -- Former Daytona 500 champion Geoff Bodine dragged his hands slowly across the sleek chassis, his eyes locked on the spot where the driver sits when racing.
No engine to check, no tires to kick on this ride, however.
Truth be told, Bodine doesn't even know how it goes so fast. It's not a race car. It's the "Night Train" -- the fastest bobsled the world has ever seen.
"Much bigger, much faster, much better," is how Night Train pilot Steven Holcomb describes his sled.
Much, if not all, the credit for that goes to Bodine.
Nearly 20 years after getting his first look at a bobsled -- against his better judgment, it's worth pointing out -- the former NASCAR star has turned into a huge part of the U.S. sliding program. This week, the sleds Bodine helped build are in the mix for Olympic medals at the Vancouver Games, further proving that his vision was one the Americans not only needed, but benefited from greatly.
"I'm glad we did it," said Bodine, who still races, planning to be in a NASCAR trucks series event next month. "No regrets. Not one regret. It's all about 'Made in the USA.' I'm a believer, I love our country . . . and the foundation of our country." That's what lured him into this sort of racing.
It was 1992, six years after he won at Daytona, when he was approached to take a trip to Lake Placid to check out the bobsleds American athletes were racing in. Bodine had no interest at first, then made the trek anyway to New York's Adirondack Mountains -- and was appalled by what he found.
For decades, the sleds Americans were trying to beat Europeans in were sleds that Europeans sold to Americans. Most of it was substandard stuff, hand-me-down sleds of sorts that the powerful teams knew weren't fast enough. So they shipped them off to the United States, which was desperate for equipment.
"When I heard that our athletes weren't using American-made bobsleds, that was unacceptable," Bodine said.
The Bo-Dyn Project was born.
With a good chunk of his own money, along with private donations, Bodine -- assisted mightily by lead designer Bob Cuneo -- has spent 18 years keeping up with bobsled technology changes, research and development costs, and whatever else that's been needed to keep American pilots on par with the rest of the world.
The gap to make up was huge at first. It's closed now, proven last year when Holcomb and Bo-Dyn's "Night Train" won the world four-man championship -- the biggest checkered flag grabbed by American bobsledders in half a century.
"I lived through the transformation of Americans going to the Europeans to buy their sleds and knowing you weren't going buy something from the Europeans that you can beat them with, and then having to come up with that money," Olympic bobsled medalist and current U.S. Coach Brian Shimer said. "A lot of my time was spent fundraising. There was no other way.
"When Bo-Dyn stepped in, that was the savior for U.S. athletes," Shimer added.
John Morgan doesn't disagree.
Morgan, a longtime slider who grew up in the shadow of Lake Placid's Olympic Village and is now an analyst for NBC, tells the perfect story when it comes to explaining how far U.S. bobsledding has come. He and his brother carried a pile of $100 bills -- 23, to be exact -- to the 1973 world championships in Lake Placid, gave the money to an Austrian pilot after he crossed the finish line, and took ownership of his sled on the spot.
That's how it was done then.
Now, even used sleds can run $100,000 -- something most bobsledders won't make in their entire career.
Bo-Dyn renders that problem moot now, since they're providing the equipment.
"Standing on that start line, all our kids need to worry about is their athletic performance," Morgan said. "That to me is an unbelievable equalizer that I don't think you can put any financial amount on. What is that worth? All we're trying to do is give these kids the best chance to win. That's what Geoff Bodine's done."
Bodine gets plenty of credit for his idea. He politely declines to accept most of it, even at the Vancouver Olympics this week, where he's been checking out his sleds at the start house and posing for photos with sliders from around the world at the finish line.
Seeing a Bo-Dyn sled medal in Whistler wouldn't change anything, he insists. He's already satisfied with what he's done.
"God puts things in front of us for a reason," Bodine said. "Things happen for a reason. We don't always see them. We don't always see it. But I was put in the right place at the right time and it all worked out."