Jim "Cheech" Garde traveled from Concord, N.C., to Pyeongchang to look after his babies.
His children are U.S. men’s and women’s bobsleds that are competing this week at the 2018 Winter Olympics. He helped design and build the sleek, high tech bobsleds with the assistance of a pit crew of North Carolina companies with NASCAR backgrounds.
Garde is in Pyeongchang as part of the U.S. bobsled team’s crew of mechanics who work feverishly inside cramped metal crates at Olympic Sliding Centre that serve as garages. It’s been 12-hour days and longer keeping the two and four person sleds in working order.
“You’re always checking for fasteners that will loosen up, there are lubrication points that you literally have to take apart to lubricate it and put it back together,” Garde said. "If you ever have a chance to go down in a bobsled, it’s not smooth, it’s very violent. There’s no suspension per se, so it’s very hard on the equipment."
Garde’s Cheech’s Creative Concepts and other Charlotte-area companies have played major roles over the years in bringing NASCAR and auto racing technology, know-how, and acumen to bobsledding, with proven results.
A two-person American bobsled carrying pilot Elana Meyers Taylor and brakeman Lauren Gibbs captured a silver medal in Pyeongchang Wednesday night, missing out on a gold medal by just 0.07 seconds. Germany won the gold while third-place Canada captured the bronze medal.
U.S. women bobsledders won silver and bronze medals at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. And "Night Train 2," a four-person sled that Garde helped design and maintain during the Sochi Games, won two bronze medals. The men’s and women’s teams are using bobsleds that might as well have “Made in North Carolina” stickers on them.
"The Mooresville, N.C., area, that’s a racing area,” said Richard Laubenstein, USA Bobsled & Skeleton’s crew chief. “And those people know how to go fast."
Garde is largely responsible for chassis of the bobsleds. DeBotech, a Mooresville, N.C. company, makes the carbon fiber cowling, or hull, for the bobsleds based on patterns from BSCI Energy Impact Systems, another Mooresville company with auto racing connections.
BSCI also made the molded seats for the drivers to the two and four-person sleds as well as the metal push handles.
The bobsleds are tested at Aerodyn Wind Tunnel’s A2 Wind Tunnel, which also checks aerodynamics on some equipment used in the Paralympic Games.
“They’re all coming to Mooresville for technology and know-how from the racing industry,” said Matt Ray, BSCI’s vice president.
When fully assembled, the two-man bobsleds weigh at least 375 pounds without crew and the women’s two-person sleds have a minimum weight of 364 pounds empty. An empty four-man bobsled weighs about 463 pounds.
Building the bobsleds in the Tar Heel state is one thing, maintaining them overseas is another. That’s where Garde, Laubenstein and Lloyd Potts come in.
Each mechanic brings a different auto racing discipline to the equation.
Garde is the NASCAR guy who has designed front-end suspensions for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joe Gibbs and Roush Fenway. He also built Jeff Gordon’s “T-Rex” car that won the Winston Cup at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1997.
Laubenstein, USA Bobsled & Skeleton Federation’s crew chief, has Indy car experience from working for Penske Racing for 22 years. Potts, a North Carolina resident, has rally road racing roots.
Garde first got involved with bobsleds in 2009 when he was hired by the Bo-Dyn Bobsled project to help design and build a four-man sled for Team USA.
After the original "Night Train" bobsled won a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, he was recruited to build another sled for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Garde said the U.S. repair crew spends about two to three hours per-sled to per race on routine maintenance. And things can get tricky if a bobsled encounters a serious problem or requires a major adjustment.
They encountered such a problem on the Meyers Taylor sled in Pyeongchang. The team had to make new foot pedals for her to minimize the effects of a leg injury she suffered before the Winter Olympics began.
"It’s just for bracing herself in the sled so that it wasn’t stressing her Achilles," he said. "But we had to do it here on the road, which is much more challenging than at home where you have more equipment."
Garde has earned the respect of the U.S. bobsledders and competitors from other countries. Saturday, members of the Brazil’s bobsled team asked him for help them with its sled.
"They’re like a sister team to us," he said.
In 2014, Garde received the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Order of Ikkos, a medal created in 2008 to give Olympic medalists a way of thanking coaches or trainers who helped them achieve success. U.S. bobsledder Chris Fogt presented the medal to Garde for his work on "Night Train 2" in Sochi.
Garde said moments like that make it tough for him to decide where his heart lies — on asphalt or ice.
"Right now, today, 2018, I like this better because it’s more old-school," Garde said. "But (working with) the athletes is another cool component.”