Hamilton: Bobsled fever can hit hard

MOORESVILLE –– The opportunity to pursue engineering breakthroughs obviously appealed to Hans deBot. After all, he is a man of science.

He graduated from N.C. State in 1993 with a degree in mechanical engineering. His exploits in the field of carbon-fiber technology earned him a spot earlier this year in the school’s inaugural Mechanical and Aerospace engineering Hall of Fame.

But the colors wrapping the project for which he could make his international mark are really what lured deBot. Those iconic colors have a Winston-Salem native manipulating space-age materials inside a Race City, USA shop in an effort to make vehicles faster, lighter and more durable. Located off a main drag through this town –– in a non-descript building just behind a tattoo parlor and a former Biscuitville location –– technology is being utilized in effort to turn the sport on its ear.

By the way, those vehicles are Olympics bobsleds and not stock cars.

“It’s all about the Red, White and Blue,” deBot, 47, said. “That trumps everything else.”
That isn’t lip service.

He is proud of his assistance with developing the U.S. Olympic team’s bobsleds. It is evident in the “Team USA Bobsled” pin attached to his jacket and how his eyes widen when he describes visits to the team’s HQ in Lake Placid.

That pride is why deBot has engulfed himself and his 17-year-old company, deBotech, Inc., in a profitless endeavor involving a sport that was as foreign to him as Mandarin Chinese.

The company makes carbon-fiber parts for some NASCAR teams, as well as various automakers, aerospace businesses and the military. For deBot, the company’s founder and president, races were once only powered by gas-fueled engines, not muscular athletes in sleek, one-piece suits.

Yet he diligently spent part of the past two weeks in front of a television at his shop to watch sleds speed down icy chutes during the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. That kind of racing now makes more sense to him and he can even offer up some astute commentary along the way.

While watching the U.S. women’s two-man team race against Canada on Thursday, he shook his head while a few of his employees sighed loudly after the Americans took a turn a little too wide. It was a slight miscue, though one that likely kept the U.S. from victory.
“It can happen that fast,” deBot said. “There’s no margin for error.”

Catching the Olympics spirit:

The Bishop McGuinness High School alum didn’t hesitate to come aboard when bobsledder Bruce Roselli reached out for deBot’s help to develop a four-man sled for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. He discovered a jarring fact along the way, one that had lured NASCAR veteran Geoff Bodine into bobsledding years earlier.

“I knew our bobsled athletes weren’t using American bobsleds and what they were using was pretty rough,” Bodine said Friday in a phone interview. “Some were mortgaging their homes to buy their equipment. That wasn’t right. They were racing for America and buying their own equipment and it wasn’t American-made equipment.”

After building that initial sled, deBot continued to investigate the science of bobsledding and later helped with the design of bobsleds for the 2013 World Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The culmination of his research resulted in seven two-man bobsleds constructed by BMW and the four-man bobsled “Night Train 2,” for which he partnered with Bodine. DeBotech also has been involved in building the Olympics one-person skeleton pods.

In all, deBotech-designed sleighs won six medals during the Sochi Olympics –– including the silver and bronze medals in the women’s two-man bobsled.

That is a solid showing, although there is room for improvement. But given the nature of the sport and the schedules of the athletes involved, much of the pressure to step things up falls on engineers such as deBot.

They have to get things right the first time.

“There really isn’t any time for them to practice,” deBot said. “It’s like going to Daytona, running three laps and then dropping the flag to start the race.”

Pride of accomplishment:

It is during the races when deBot, who said he makes no money from this endeavor, gets his payoff.

That much was evident when he was watching the U.S. Team compete. His employees chatted during breaks in action, but deBot said little unless it related to the actual competition. He absorbed the elapsed times of all the teams competing and computed in his head how the Americans stood.

All eyes were on the television when the sleds began to move. It was clear that deBot’s staff –– which works only a few minutes from Lake Norman, but hundreds of miles from Lake Placid –– has bought into their own piece of the Olympics, too.

“It is kind of unique,” deBot said. “We have so much involved here in racing, in general. A lot of the same physical principles and theories all apply, regardless if you’re racing a bobsled, a skeleton, a NASCAR, or a go-kart. All the physics is the same so you try to take all that experience and nuances and see what you can do. We’re doing all we can. But I’m a composite guy, not a bobsled guy.”

The way he twisted and turned in his seat while the U.S. competed on the television in front of him said otherwise.

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