Kutztown, Pa. man helps Olympic bobsledders go downhill fast
READING, Pa. — The bobsled run at the Winter Olympics in Sochi might seem an odd place for a veteran of Indy and NASCAR racing, but Richard Laubenstein of Kutztown says there are great similarities between auto racing and bobsledding.
"The basic idea is the same in both sports," said Laubenstein, 47, a mechanic on the U.S. Olympic bobsled team. "You want to make the racer go faster."
Laubenstein, a member of Penske Racing Team when it was in Reading, chatted about bobsledding in a telephone interview from Russia.
Team USA, which begins competition today at the Sanki Sliding Center, promises to be a strong contender for a gold medal, he said.
"The athletes are the engines on bobsleds," he said. "And we have the strongest athletes we've had in a long time."
The stakes are particularly high in the two-man bobsled competition, where the U.S. has not won a gold medal since 1936.
BMW of North America, team sponsor, has put a reported $2 million into developing super-light carbon fiber sleds capable of reaching 85 mph.
Michael Scully, creative director of BMW Group Designworks USA, spent two years designing the sled upon which the U.S. is pinning its hopes of capturing gold.
As part of a three-man team, all with auto racing experience, Laubenstein is charged setting up the sled for maximum speed on a course where the difference between winning and losing can be a fraction of a second.
While athletes provide the power, mechanics adjust the sled's runners to conform to the temperature and consistency of the ice.
"The runners are made of material that all teams must use," Laubenstein said. "However, each team can shape their runners differently."
Laubenstein's familiarity with carbon fiber, learned during his stint with Penske, came in handy Friday when U.S. women's team driver Elana Meyers crashed during a qualifying run.
No one was seriously hurt, and Laubenstein and crew members worked frantically to repair the sled's ruptured skin.
Laubenstein, who managed Penske's Racing Experience division from 2000 to 2010, had been doing consulting work before signing on with BMW in September.
"Except for a week at Christmas, I've been on the road with the World Cup Tour since September," he said.
The team trained at Lake Placid, N.Y., before competing internationally at San Moritz, Innsbruck and Munich on the way to Sochi.
Wendy Laubenstein had never a seen a bobsled competition before going to see her husband's team compete at Lake Placid in December.
"It's awesome that he's actually in the Olympics," said Laubenstein, 46, who teaches elementary school in Lehigh County.
From Russia, Laubenstein has spoken to his wife's students on FaceTime.
"They're all excited about watching the bobsled competition on television," she said.
At 11:15 this morning, Wendy will watch the start of the two-man bobsled competition online at NBC Sports Live Extra. NBC Primetime will replay races tonight.
Wendy had intended to accompany her husband to Sochi, but canceled plans because of problems finding hotel accommodations.
Still, when competition begins today, she'll be front row in front of her computer, wearing a U.S. Bobsled Team T-shirt.
"I'll be cheering and yelling at the computer screen," she said. "It's not going to be quiet and calm in the Laubenstein household."