LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 fired up, the rumble of its exhaust echoing through the Adirondack Mountains. That can mean only one thing: The Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge is ready for its fourth run.
And even though the embattled economy forced Chevrolet to pull out as a sponsor this year, Bodine had positive news on Friday — dedication of a new building for U.S. athletes to work on their bobsleds.
“It’s hard to tell you how excited we are and what this means for our project and bobsledding in general,” Bodine said. “It was time to upgrade the facilities. The problem has been that we’ve built so many bobsleds we couldn’t find a place to store them. We really, really needed this building.”
The Bobsled Challenge is an effort to raise funds to keep the U.S. men’s and women’s bobsled teams at the forefront of international racing. It will again feature NASCAR and NHRA drivers piloting specially made bobsleds down the Mount Van Hoevenberg track outside Lake Placid. Members of the New York State Army National Guard will serve as brakemen, and the U.S. Bobsled National Championships, a four-heat competition over two days, will be held in conjunction with the Bobsled Challenge.
This year’s Bodine field includes: road racer Boris Said; Joe Gibbs Racing phenom Joey Logano; NASCAR Whelen racing series champions Philip Morris, Brian Loftin, and Ted Christopher; Daytona Rolex pole winner Eric Curran; 19-year-old sprint car driver Tom Tolbert; NHRA Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr.; and top fuel drivers Morgan Lucas, JR Todd, and Bob Vandergriff.
Earnhardt’s No. 88, which is sponsored by the Army National Guard, was used to promote the event even though NASCAR’s most popular driver wasn’t in the field.
Said, whose late father drove in the 1968 and 1972 Winter Olympics for the U.S. bobsled team and was one of the sport’s great promoters in his heyday, has dominated the Bobsled Challenge with five wins in six races since its inception.
“This is just the most fun of any kind of charity that I’ve ever done,” said Said, who is preparing for next month’s Daytona
500. “Of course we come and we all want to win because we’re racers, but it’s for a great cause. It’s for all these kids out here that largely go unnoticed for three years — and they work 24-7 12 months a year at their sport to represent America. To be able to come here and have a small part in getting better equipment, it’s a good feeling.”
In Race 1, all drivers will compete against the clock in two runs down the track. Race 2 will feature head-to-head matchups between the NASCAR and NHRA drivers, with the winner from each division squaring off in a final heat for bragging rights. Qualifying is Saturday and the races will be staged Sunday.
Lucas gave Said the stiffest challenge a year ago.
“It’s been on my mind all year long,” Lucas said. “It’s anybody’s game this year, but Boris is the guy everybody’s always trying to catch.”
Bodine fell in love with bobsledding after watching the 1992 Winter Olympics on television. He traveled to the Lake Placid track, saw that the U.S. teams were competing with European-made sleds, and created the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project Inc. to help ensure U.S. sleds would be made in America.
Bodine’s efforts have since helped provide the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF) with sleds designed using NASCAR technology. The so-called Bo-Dyn sleds finally broke through at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City when the U.S. team ended its 46-year Olympic drought with three medals — a gold, a silver and a bronze.
“I started with Geoff from day one,” said Brian Shimer, who won the four-man bronze in 2002 and now is head coach of the U.S. team. “I was real skeptical. I’d seen a lot of people come and go. I admire Geoff for his audacity, his determination and dedication.
“We probably don’t express enough how much we appreciate it. I owe my medal to Geoff,” Shimer said. “He was a big part of that. I came from when we had nothing and bought our owns sleds to today. The athletes today, when they come in, they’ve got the best equipment in the world. Sometimes, you’ve got to come from nothing to appreciate what you’ve got.”
“It’s really important. I hate to think what things would be like if this project hadn’t started back in 1992,” added Darrin Steele, USBSF chief executive officer. “What we’ve come to now is like night and day. We don’t have equipment limitations. We arguably have the best sleds in the world and it shows in the performances we’ve had. I don’t want to think of life without this partnership.”
Even with the economy reeling and 2009 expected to be a very difficult year, Bodine is chasing a dream that appears close to being fulfilled — enticing a Sprint Cup superstar to race a bobsled. Schedule conflicts have prevented Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart from making the trip north, but a breakthrough may be at hand.
“Carl Edwards wanted to be here, but he’s getting married tomorrow, so he decided that was more important,” said Phil Kurze, director of motorsports for Whelen Engineering and president of the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project. “We’re hoping we can get Carl up here next year. It really would be key for us to get a couple of the superstars to come up here. It would give us even more exposure.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.