Mooresville business revels in success of Olympic bobsleds
Posted: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 6:00 am | Updated: 9:57 am, Thu Feb 20, 2014.
By Lauren Odomirok/Mooresville Tribune
United by matching black “Sochi 2014” shirts, employees of Mooresville’s deBotech, Inc. gathered transfixed before a television on Monday. And they cheered mightily when Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton secured Team USA a bronze medal in the two-man Olympic bobsled competition.
The victory was extra sweet because deBotech developed the entire fleet of two-person carbon fiber bobsleds for the men’s and women’s 2014 U.S. Olympic team. The company’s engineers, supervised by CEO Hans deBot, also manufactured a ProtoStar V5 for the Olympics ‘ skeleton races, as well as the Night Train 2, a four-man bobsled.
“Carbon fiber has a very high strength to weight ratio, so it’s much strength to little weight,” deBot said. “We try to make the bodies of vehicles light weight, so teams can put extra weight where they need to.”
Carbon fiber components are strong and light, deBot said, aiding sleds in moving faster and more accurately.
In bobsledding, sleek, narrow sleds cut across a twisting track of ice at speeds around 80 miles an hour. deBotech Spokesperson Crystal Emerick pointed out the D-rings inside the jet black Night Train 2 four-man bobsled resting on the company’s floor. The D-rings pull ropes connected to the runners to steer the sled down a track.
According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, two-man sleds weigh about 384 pounds for men and 284 pounds for women. A four-man sled comes in at 462 pounds.
Skeleton races, meanwhile, equate to an athlete’s chin resting about one inch from the ice as he or she reaches speeds of 80-90 miles per hour without brakes or a seat belt.
deBotech partnered with the Design Team of BMW North America’s Design Works to manufacture the two-man bobsleds.
Bobsled builder and former NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine of Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project Inc. in Charlotte helped deBot craft the Night Train 2. Bodine’s interest in creating bobsleds grew from watching the 1992 Winter Olympics held in Albertville, France. He noticed that the U.S. team was having a difficult time competing. So he partnered with Bob Cuneo of Chassis Dynamics in Connecticut to bring NASCAR technology to the world of ice.
“Bodine found out our American athletes were training in bobsleds that were made in Europe. And basically the Europeans aren’t going to give us the fanciest, best of the best, because they didn’t want us to beat them,” deBot said.
A North Carolina State University graduate who studied mechanical engineering, deBot initially worked in Charlotte for Sparcraft, which designs and builds components of racing boats. That experience introduced him to the world of carbon fiber. And before long, his NASCAR buddies were pressuring him to develop products to enhance the performance of their cars.
So in 1998, he began his business out of a Cornelius garage. Today, his 20,000-square-foot space off N.C. 150 employs 20 people and provides carbon fiber and advanced composite products for NASCAR, the aerospace industry and the U.S. military, among other customers.
But it wasn’t until deBot received a call from Bruce Rosselli, an Olympic bobsled driver, asking him to build a four-man bobsled for the 2002 Salt Lake City games, that intriguing new possibilities blossomed.
“I didn’t know anything about bobsledding, didn’t know anybody in the mix. But I thought because of the heartfelt deal of doing it for the Olympics, I said sure,” deBot said. “And I downloaded all the specs off the internet and had a lot of my suppliers see if they would donate materials.”
“He’s an opportunist entrepreneur. He’s told me if someone has a problem, and they need a solution, whatever it is, he’ll figure it out,” Emerick said of deBot.
“I’m willing to try,” he agreed with a smile.
Results spoke for themselves. That year, the U.S. won both the silver and bronze medals in the four-man bobsled race.
Last September, two-time Olympian and 2012 World Champion Katie Uhlaender, 2010 Olympian John Daly and World Cup competitors Matt Antoine and Kyle Tress spent two days testing the ProtoStar V5 skeleton sled in Mooresville’s wind tunnel under the guidance of head coach Tuffy Latour. deBotech created the model with the help of ProStar Engineering of Cincinnati.
“The U.S. program is proud to have sleds made in the USA, and our technology partners have put us in the contention for the medals in Sochi 2014,” Latour said.
Part of the beauty of the ProtoStar V5, deBot said, are its custom-fit saddles, or sides, athletes slip into that are molded to the shape of their body.
“We had a lot of the athletes come and visit here and splash (make a mold of) their bodies, so we can build custom saddles,” deBot said. “That’s what holds them into the skeleton. Literally, we molded their bodies, their torsos, so we could get their exact size, shape and height. Races are all done in hundredths of a second. So one little slip, one little turn, one little bump, makes a huge difference.”
In Sochi, Noelle Pikus-Pace earned a silver medal while Antoine received a bronze for the U.S. in skeleton. Meanwhile, Holcomb and Langton’s bronze medal in the two-man bobsled competition represents the first medal America has won in that category in 62 years.
Having a Mooresville link to the Olympics is a feather in the town’s cap, said Mayor Miles Atkins.
“It is so exciting for a company here in Mooresville to be represented in the 2014 Olympic Games,” he said. “The engineering work of deBotech is just one example of the high-quality work force we are blessed with here. While the world is watching the athletes, we are watching the equipment. Go Team USA, and go Team Mooresville!”
For deBot, who is in regular contact with Olympic coaches and calls the athletes his “buddies,” the games are really about fostering international good will.
“Bobsledding is not a big money game,” he said. “But you can’t replace the aura around it, the feel good around it, people’s impressions of the Olympics. For one month of the year, we’re not talking about war. You see these athletes getting along, high-fiving, Russians, the U.S., China, Korea, Japan. Those are the true benefits to doing the work.”
With a medal in the bag for men’s two-man bobsledding, the women’s competition got underway Tuesday and continues today. Men’s four-man bobsled is Saturday and Sunday.