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Bodine's NASCAR knowhow speeds U.S.

WHISTLER (Reuters) - Standing near Whistler’s Thunderbird corner as American pilot John Napier roared into view, former NASCAR great Geoff Bodine neatly summed up the difference between bobsleigh racing and motorsport.

“A driver controls his speed, can shut the engine off if he don’t want to go,” Bodine told Reuters at the Winter Olympics.

“Here the engine is Mother Nature. You don’t turn her off until you get to the bottom.”

Bodine, winner of the 1986 Daytona 500, NASCAR’s showpiece race, is well qualified to talk about the two high-speed sports, one all growling V8 engines and concrete and the other requiring brute strength, polished runners, ice and gravity.

Always fascinated by speeding machines, Bodine was sitting at home watching the 1992 Winter Olympics and observing how the American sledders were struggling to match their German and Swiss rivals.

It wrankled with Bodine, one of NASCAR’s great innovators, and stirred his patriotic instincts. After a chat with close friend and stock car chassis builder Bob Cuneo he decided bobsleigh could use a little NASCAR technology.

The Bo-Dyn (Bo for Bodine, Dyn for Chassis Dynamics) Bobsled Project was born.

‘GROUND ZERO’

Eighteen years later and Bodine, who once reached 197mph in a NASCAR race in Atlanta, is as passionate as ever about bobsleigh racing and nobody would be prouder on Saturday if Steve Holcomb’s gleaming black sled known as the Night Train ends the 62-year wait for an American men’s bobsleigh gold.

“The whole basis for this project was to provide American made equipment for American athletes,” Bodine said.

“When I first started I was ignorant about the sport.

“Bobby had never seen a bobsleigh before and I had never seen a bobsleigh before apart from on television. We started from ground zero.”

A change in the Olympic cycle meant Bodine and Cuneo had just two years to design, test and build the first sleds for the American team at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.

“I was watching the Lillehammer Games at home and when the first sled went down the run, that was my proudest moment,” he said.

“I’m proud of what these guys do every time they go down a run, but that first sled in Lillehammer, that was something.”

A seventh place in the two-man bobsleigh for Brian Shimer was as good as it got for the Americans in Lillehammer but Bodine had been bitten by the sliding bug.

“I realized that there was so much more to do,” said the 60-year-old who has made 100 or so runs in one of his custom-built ice torpedos. “We figured out this is no fun unless you win.”

Bodine’s wish came true in 2002 when Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers won the women’s bobsleigh gold at Salt Lake City while the U.S. won silver and bronze in the four-man bobsleigh behind a certain German named Andre Lange.

Lange is still blocking the path of the Night Train but Holcomb and his crew have a real shot at gold this weekend on Whistler’s neck-jarring track.

“It’s pretty amazing to watch them,” Bodine, who raises funds for the team through the annual Bodine Bobsled Challenge in which NASCAR drivers race bobsleighs at Lake Placid, said.

“They have fun but they are very serious about their fun. They are here for a reason ... they are proud of what they do and proud of the Night Train.”

Bodine is modest about his impact on American bobsledding and is clearly not seeking reflected glory.

“I dropped a green flag on this project a long time ago, but I haven’t been here, I’ve been busy,” he said.

“I’m satisfied, I’m full, I don’t need anything. I’m just happy for the athletes. I want them all to win but it’s about the effort and I’m proud whether they get a medal or not.”

Editing by Jon Bramley; To comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com

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