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When Every Thousandth Counts, USA Luge Looks To New Sled Technology To Gain An Edge

By Tony Gorman | Dec. 31, 2020, 12:35 p.m. (ET)

Chris Mazdzer reacts after his second run at the FIL Luge World Cup on Nov. 24, 2019 in Innsbruck, Austria. 

 

When Chris Mazdzer hits the ice this weekend for his first luge world cup race of the season, he’ll be doing so with a sled he hopes will be faster than ever.

In a sport where sleds can clock up to 80 miles per hour and results are decided by the thousandth of a second, literally every moment counts, and that’s why USA Luge and its partners are continuously working to improve their sleds.

The national governing body has been working on that with partners Dow Chemical and Richard Childress Racing for the last couple years. RCR took things a step further in recent months by assigning Colby Mazzuca, an expert in aerodynamics, to work with the organization and Mazdzer in particular.

And last month USA Luge announced the project is getting another huge push from just 70 miles northwest of its home base in Lake Placid, New York. Thanks to a new grant from the National Science Foundation, the mechanical and aeronautical engineering department at Clarkson University’s Wallace H. Coulter School of Engineering is joining the project to help design the fastest luge possible for U.S. sliders.

“This takes the project to the next level,” said Gordy Sheer, USA Luge director of marketing and sponsorships.

Long gone are the days when athletes build their own sleds. Sled technology is constantly evolving, and over the past decade in particular it’s become even more sophisticated.

That’s where the grant comes in.

Between Mazzuca and the other partners, USA Luge has been making progress on its sled technology. Believing the project could use more firepower, however, Sheer turned to the NSF, which in turn awarded a $221,517 grant to Clarkson.

Doug Bohl, who is an associate professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at Clarkson, was tapped to lead the effort for the Potsdam, New York-based school, along with fellow professor Brian Helenbrook. Both have worked with USA Luge in the past, and Bohl is a former president of the Adirondack Luge Club, which promotes the sport in upstate New York.

With the grant they will now work with AeroWorks — for which Mazzuca is also CEO — to try to find more efficiencies in the sleds’ aerodynamics.

So what exactly are they doing?

Well, that’s complicated.

It basically designing faster, more aerodynamic sleds that are more efficient. That’s the name of the game.

Gordy Sheer, USA Luge director of marketing and sponsorships

A press release announcing the grand described Clarkson’s work as an “investigation of the effectiveness of adjoint based optimization to perform aerodynamic optimization.” In simpler terms, they’re using advanced computer models to figure out how to get air to flow around the sled more smoothly. The adjoint technology being implemented in this project is typically used in on larger objects like cars, making this a unique scientific study. 

“It basically designing faster, more aerodynamic sleds that are more efficient. That’s the name of the game,” said Sheer, who also won an Olympic silver medal in 1998 as a doubles luge athlete. “Hopefully, the grant improves on those existing adjoint technologies out there.”

AeroWorks, which is leading the project’s computational analysis, has already been making progress. Working with another partner, Stratasys, USA Luge is able to take the AeroWorks design to a 3D printer and and turn them into sleds. The hope is that by adding the Clarkson team, those aerodynamic gains can compound.

“By using the latest technology in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) such as adjoint solutions and mesh morphing, we are able to optimize the sled more efficiently and with better precision,” Mazzuca said in a press release.

Or, for fans of the U.S. luge team, the goal is to help get more American athletes on the podium.

These types of partnerships are not without precedent in the world of sliding.

During the 1992 Winter Games, former NASCAR driver and Daytona 500 winner Geoff Bodine watched the U.S. bobsled teams finish off the podium in Albertville, France, and thought he might be able to help. At the time, Americans were using foreign built bobsleds. Bodine created the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project, and using the leadership and technology borrowed from NASCAR the U.S. bobsled team won six Olympic medals — including two gold medals — between 1994 and 2010.

Sheer said there is a difference in the two projects despite their similarities.

“The Bo-Dyn Project was more holistic, whereas this project is more focused on aerodynamics,” Sheer said. “The goal is to win Olympic medals. Clearly, this project is no exception.”

If it works out, though, it could continue the positive momentum USA Luge has been building upon in recent years. After the sport made its Olympic debut in 1964, the U.S. broke through with silver and bronze medals in doubles competition at both the 1998 and 2002 Games. The breakthrough in singles has come in the last decade. In 2014, Erin Hamlin became the first American to win an Olympic medal in singles luge when she finished third. Four years later Mazdzer won a silver medal.

Among the athletes Mazdzer has been the point person trying out the new sled technology, and he’s spend the past several weeks testing out new sled designs. After the U.S. team skipped the fall portion of the world cup season due to concerns about COVID-19, he’ll have his first opportunity to race with one of those sleds this weekend in Koenigssee, Germany.

If all goes as planned, he might be racing with an even better version of this sled a little over a year from now at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
 

Tony Gorman

Tony Gorman is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Chris Mazdzer