For the first time in 20 years, USA Luge is giving its sleds a major technological overhaul.
The team revealed Tuesday that it has worked with Dow Chemical to re-engineer sleds, primarily the runners that glide along the ice as racers who are on their back navigate down an icy chute. And with this season ending at the Sochi Olympics, the Americans hope the changes pay off quickly.
"We're by no means done," USA Luge assistant coach Duncan Kennedy said from the team's base in Lake Placid, N.Y. "But we've come a long way."
American singles racers use the sleds throughout the World Cup season, which starts at Lillehammer, Norway, in November. The new runners were rolled out on a limited basis late last season, mostly drawing rave reviews especially when tested on the track that will host the Sochi races in February.
"So far I'm liking what's been happening and am looking forward to seeing everything come together," former world champion and longtime U.S. women's slider Erin Hamlin said. "I think there is a lot of potential to see some great gains and speed, so I can't wait to get on ice."
The Americans have known for some time that changes had to happen.
The team endured the departure of its longtime sled-builder about three years ago, and that's only one of the reasons those around the team point to when describing U.S. struggles on the World Cup circuit in recent seasons. And for about as long as anyone can remember, the U.S. sleds were basically being built one at a time, with no parts of one seeming to work with another.
That problem should be gone now. Without revealing specific changes, Dow said by adjusting the material selection, design and fabrication portions of the sled-building process, the result is "a faster, replicable, more consistent and reliable sled for Team USA using advanced techniques and solutions."
"We were looking for areas that we felt would not only help us with our brand, but give us opportunities to demonstrate our solutionism through chemistry and through intellectual know-how," said George Hamilton, Dow's vice president of Olympic operations. "We were looking at applications that would allow us to utilize and leverage our know-how in other markets."
Dow used composites from other markets, such as automotive and construction fields, on the sleds. To the casual fan, the changes almost certainly would not be noticeable. Sliders, however, reacted to the changes right away. Kennedy raced for nearly three decades competitively, and said when he tried out the new runners, he was a bit taken aback at how fast he was going down the track.
"One of the byproducts of this design and the material choices is we've actually created a sled that in a lot of ways is easier to slide on," Kennedy said. "It's amazing when you can hit both those attributes, both speed and user-friendliness in one shot. So that's been a nice little boost for us as well. This is going to be very exciting."
The team's look will also be changing. USA Luge will be conducting an online poll, asking fans to choose which sled paint pattern and race-suit design they want to see American athletes use in Sochi.
Sliding sports like luge, skeleton and bobsled have firm rules about construction and setup of sleds, but there's room for mystery as well. Whenever one team finds a way to glean even the tiniest edge and in a sport like luge that's measured to the one-thousandth of a second, no edge is truly tiny it's not uncommon for other nations to start snooping around to see what's happening.
For as long as they can, the Americans will want to guard what they think they've got.
"The psychological aspect of this may be almost as big as everything else," Kennedy said.
There's more to this than just some sleek new runners. Kennedy has been tinkering with other parts of the sleds as well, again using technology to try to find the best ergonomic positions in which to get from the start to the finish faster than ever before.
And before too long, the U.S. will know if it has moved any closer to the world powers like Germany, which will likely be favored to win gold in every luge event at the Sochi Games.
"What I want to do as a sled-builder is give these guys the equipment that when they hit that nice run and they're driving properly, it's reflected in the timesheet," Kennedy said. "I can't say that's always been the case. No sled will magically take the athlete down the hill, but if they're upholding their end of the bargain, I wanted to give them a sled that would get them to the podium. And we are definitely in that realm right now."