Changing Steel Into Gold

There’s the signal. Only 50 feet separate you and the electric eye that starts the timer. You must break the beam within 60 seconds or all is lost, and four years of training will be for naught. To complicate matters, you’re standing on ice, and you have to break the beam with a two-man bobsled weighing about 400 pounds.

Fortunately, you’re not alone. Adrenaline surges as you and your teammate rock the sled back and forth. The clock ticks toward zero. As you sprint for the line, needle-sharp spikes on the bottoms of your shoes dig into the ice. Close on your heels, your colleague urges you on.

Once the beam is broken you have 164 feet to build up momentum before jumping into the cramped cockpit of the sled. After a short sprint, you dive in and grab the steering ropes. Your colleague follows quickly and tucks in behind, almost invisible to those looking on.

The world is a blur as you rocket down the slippery 15-turn Spiral. You are thrown from side to side as the sled shoots through the turns. In about 54 seconds it’s all over, as the sled triggers another electric eye at the end of the run. Your time has been recorded to the hundredth of a second. Three more runs, and the world will have a new Olympic champion.

That was the scene during the two-man bobsled competition at the XVIII Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. And at the end of four runs there was indeed a new Olympic champion. In fact, there were two. Making bobsled and Olympic history, Canadian driver Pierre Lueders and Italian driver Guenther Huber tied to the one-hundredth of a second at the end of their four timed runs. In accordance with Olympic rules, both teams were awarded the gold medal for their achievement.

The Spiral in Asakawa, Japan, where the competition took place, is 1,360 meters long and consists of 15 corners. Driver Pierre Lueders and brakeman Dave MacEachern consistently drove their sled, Canada 1, down the run in just over 54 seconds. But, the Italian team consistently did the same.

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Going into the final run of the competition, Lueders trailed Huber by three-hundredths of a second, a mere fraction of time in the real world, but an eternity in the world of bobsledding.

Noted for their fast starts, Lueders and MacEachern got a good push to launch Canada 1 on its final run ... and into history. By the time they reached the bottom they had earned back that fraction of a second and tied the Italians for the gold medal. It was the first time an Olympic bobsled race produced co-winners, and it was Canada’s first Olympic medal in the two-man bobsled.

“It was a race that will go down in Olympic history,” Lueders told the Edmonton Sun after the race. “It was amazing. Unbelievable. We drove through all different conditions in the last two days, through 15 corners in four different runs, and ended up tied to the 1/100th of a second. In the end, I think I’d have been very disappointed if it hadn’t ended up this way.”

Brakeman Dave MacEachern agreed, “Just being part of history is an incredible feeling. I knew we were going to win, but I didn’t know we were going to tie!”

Driving nearly 680 pounds of sled, driver and brakeman down a chute of ice at nearly 80 miles per hour is no mean feat. Everything is riding on two pairs of metal runners only millimeters wide, and much of the time they’re not even touching the ice. “The runner is always moving vertically,” explains Lueders. “It’s never really gliding; it’s always jumping on the ice. It’s not a constant, continual gliding, like tires on the road. It’s more like when your car is jumping through pot holes.”

To the uninitiated, the runners are just curved pieces of metal. But to the bobsled drivers they are as valuable – and as highly guarded – as gold. The right runners can mean the difference between going home with the gold medal, or just going home.

Drivers experiment with different types of steel and different shapes to gain even the slightest advantage. And what works on one track may not work on the next. “Every track is different,” said Lueders, “much like in race car driving. You go to a different track every weekend and you race. No two tracks are alike, and every track has its own characteristics.” Also, “The ice is influenced by the temperature of the air.”

“The general atmospheric conditions determine what kind of ice you’ll have,” Lueders continued. And different ice requires different runners. “Ideally, you’ll use something different when it’s colder and the ice is harder, as opposed to when it’s warmer and the ice is softer.”

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Squire/Allsport

Drivers try to determine the condition of the ice before selecting a particular set of runners for the race. Lueders, who has been competing since 1990, says he takes temperatures of the track every day during the track walk before the run. He determines which runners to use based mostly on ice temperature. “Once you’re in a race, you basically have to stick with the runners you have on for the whole race. You hope you have enough background over the years that you can determine which ones to use based on the conditions,” he said.

With so much riding on them – both figuratively and literally – it’s no wonder bobsled teams guard the design and composition of their runners so closely.

“If you find a particular steel that you think is working well for you,” said Lueders, “you try to keep it quiet, and you don’t let anybody know what it is. You’re looking for something that polishes well and has a low coefficient of friction, something that will help you glide better over the ice. And, ideally, you’re looking for something that will retain its heat toward the surface of the runner on the contact area.”

Theoretically, a runner that retains heat at the surface will melt the ice quicker, forming a thin layer of water that allows the sled to glide faster. For this very reason, teams are not allowed to heat their runners. To prevent violations, competitors’ runners are checked against a test runner that has been left outside for one hour prior to the competition.

And teams are not allowed to cover their runners while competing, so they are out in plain view for the world, and the competition, to see. “Everyone is always trying to see which ones you have on,” said Lueders. “It’s a game that all the drivers play. But if you have all your runners identical, then no one can tell what you have on. I have about three different sets for the two-man that all look the same, so no one really knows which materials I’m using, or which set I’m using.”

Lueders has been designing his own runners since 1992, when he purchased a set from a fellow Canadian driver that worked very well. “I analyzed the steel and subsequently decided to make copies of those runners, because they were very good.”

Lueders modified the runners and experimented with different materials until the design became his own. “I’ve done research,” he explained. “I’ve tried runners with materials that I heard other athletes were using. Generally, bobsledding is a small, little community, and a lot of information gets leaked out. So I get a lot of information in terms of who’s using what.”

Lueders says there are two basic kinds of steel being used for the runners. “You can use plain, normal carbon steels, like 4140 or 4340; and then you can also get into the stainless steels, which seems to be a trend of a lot of teams. I have various sets of both.”

The key is to make a runner that is strong, but flexible, so it will stay in contact with the ice. “You’re looking for a material that is quite flexible and will not jump as much,” Lueders said. “The more gliding you get, the better off you are.

I tend to use pretty simple steels that you can just get off the rack. They seem to work very well. They’re very inexpensive and they work.

Pierre Lueders

Unlike many sports, where the goal is to make the vehicle as light as possible, bobsledding is a sport that relies on weight. “You can be as light as you want,” Lueders said, “but it’s a gravity sport, so you want to have as much weight as you can.”

Including the driver and brakeman, the two-man bobsled is allowed a maximum weight of 390 kilograms, or about 680 pounds. If a sled is under the maximum, teams are allowed to add ballast to bring up the weight.

Most aspects of the bobsled are closely regulated, and thus not open to much modification. The sleds themselves are typically purchased from a select few builders in Germany and Italy. The runners are regulated also, as far as size, basic shape and construction, but within those regulations there is some room to play.

“There are certain parameters, dimensions, that are minimums,” Lueders explains. “You have to be within those regulations, otherwise the runner isn’t legal.” But, stay within those rules, and you’re free to redesign the runners to gain any advantage.

With the runners being such a closely guarded secret, it’s imperative to have a machine shop you can trust. Lueders chose to trust Specialty Tool & Manufacturing Co. (Stamco) of Edmonton with his runners, and his Olympic hopes.

Lueders had an existing runner that he wanted to copy in a new type of material. Alfred Ruefli, senior manufacturing engineer at Stamco, was Lueders’ first contact at the shop. “He had a new material,” Ruefli said, “and we have a tracer (a Renishaw system on their Haas VMC used to digitize an existing part for machining), so we basically can copy any shape. After we have the program in the machine, we can change the shape and re-machine a new part.”

Stamco traced the runner on their Haas VF-2 vertical machining center to get the machining program. Lueders made some changes to the design and provided the material. Stamco then cut the new set of runners.

“When I make my designs for the runner,” Lueders explained, “I basically give them a one-to-one scale drawing. I take the existing runner that I have, draw it out on paper – that’s where I write on my dimensions – and then draw the curvature on the bottom, and they trace it with the machine. They get an exact, to the thousandth, tracing of the rock, as we call it, on the bottom.”

The rock, or the curvature of the bottom of the runner, is one of the parameters sledders are allowed to modify. “The changes that are made to the runners are basically changes that I want done, ” Lueders said. “The two-man runners that I make, particularly, are very good. The design is very good; the shape on the rock, or the running surface, is very good. And it’s a unique design. There’s not anyone else that has that particular shape of runner or look. They’re very close to all the minimum requirements of dimension, and they’re very good.

“Bobsledding is a very high-tech sport,” said Lueders, “and I think to be on the top of this sport you need to invest a lot of time and a lot of money. And you need to have, obviously, good machining capabilities of a company that knows what they’re doing. You can’t afford to have any mistakes, your material ruined, or the machine program screwing up and all of a sudden you have a runner that’s three inches too short and an inch-and-a-half too narrow. You have to have a lot of trust in the people that are making them, and you have to make sure they know how to work the machines. Obviously the people at Stamco have been doing a very good job, because they’ve made seven sets for me now. And they’ll be making more.”

For Pierre Lueders, the combination of efficient designs, proper materials and the machining capabilities of Stamco have paid off, allowing him to change steel into gold. 

Story by Scott Rathburn.