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SALT LAKE CITY — Until that February day a few years ago, the closest I’d come to Olympic bobsledding was when I manned a doorjamb and helped shoulder my friend’s car out of a snow bank, still pushing as he pulled back onto the road, then jumping back in before we lost momentum.
A few years later, I found myself at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City waiting to take a ride in an actual bobsled down an actual Olympic bobsled track. Prior to my bobsled ride we were given an orientation by their director who told us, “The purpose of the park is to train Olympians, not be Disneyworld.”
After the orientation we took a shuttle to the top of the track where we waited for two hours for a 50 second ride. So far, it was exactly like Disneyworld, but it was totally worth the wait.
Eighteen public riders (including myself and my girlfriend) were scheduled for trips down the track that night. At the top of the course, we met four members of the U.S. bobsled team, who took turns serving as driver and brakemen of the four person bobsled we would be riding in.
In actual competition, teams push their sled down the start of the course and jump in. This is not the case with the public rides program for the simple reason that most public riders aren't athletic enough to jump into a moving sled while running across ice. Crewmen pulled our sled onto the track and held it in place while everyone got in. The driver got in first. Then the two public riders and the brakeman got in last.
The course is just over a mile long and has 15 turns. There was a good chance we'd reach speeds over 90 miles per hour and in some turns experience five Gs of force, the equivalent of a shuttle launch.
- The bobsled track is at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City. You will ride the same track used by athletes currently training for the Sochi Olympics.
- The price is $200 per person. You must be 16 or older to ride in the bobsled.
- You can find dates and times when public rides are available, and make reservations here or call 435-658- 4206.
"A sled goes faster and controls differently when fully loaded," the course manager had explained during our orientation. "Public riders give our bobsled team a chance to practice under fully loaded conditions."
Park City's bobsled track was designed by architect Jan Stellar, a former Olympian, who also designed the tracks used in Albertville, Lillehamer and Nagano. He said that on paper all four tracks look quite similar, but in reality Park City's track features some perks that he believes make it one of the fastest and most technical bobsled and luge tracks in the world.
"What makes this course different from all the others are the dynamics of the mountain," Stellar said. "This track is on a very steep hill with a very long, sustained drop. Other tracks tend to slowly build speed and then hit their peak speed and slow down before you hit the finish line. With this track, right off the get go, you go very fast and that speed is sustained for the entire length of the track. A course with terrain and steepness can't just be designed into every mountain. The mountain must have those capabilities in its underlying makeup."
The track manager pushed the sled down the track about thirty feet and let go as our sled dropped over the track’s first crest, and our speed continued to increase. We were already going pretty fast when we hit the first turn, then another long, dropping straightaway.
The bobsled's skates running over the hard ice made a sound like a drop of Tabasco sauce dancing on a hot skillet. We hissed through the crease, the course steepened again, and it created in us a feeling that we were skimming across the ice surface like a rock skipping across a pond. Not so much hugging the ground as patting it on the back.
We hit the second curve at nearly 70 miles per hour (we were told later). Our driver took the corner tight, on its inside groove, and we felt the G forces piling up. We hit the long curves in the middle of the track going over 90 miles per hour, a speed we would maintain until the end of the course.
We came out of the last curve and charged down the straightaway. The sled felt aligned with the finish line the way a negative ion aligns with a positive ion for a lightning strike. I’m sure the sound barrier must have exploded somewhere behind us. We thundered over the finish line, a blinding flash of energy.
The ride took 55.8 seconds at an average speed of 71.8 miles per hour.
Steven Law is a river guide in the Grand Canyon, a backcountry explorer and an all around curious fellow.