Dow Chemical is helping some US athletes reach for Olympic glory

Jan 31, 2014

Some scientists at Dow Chemical in Midland plan to spend some of their break time next month watching TV coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. 

But they’ve got more than the usual rooting interest in one of the Games' more obscure sports.

In a nondescript laboratory deep inside the warren of buildings that make up the massive Dow Chemical complex in Midland, a large machine is shaking and rattling something that looks like a miniature sleigh.

Jay Tudor is a member of Dow’s Research and Development team and he knows a thing or two about the sport of luge.

"It's a very violent ride," says Jay Tudor, "When you put a GoPro camera on the bottom of a sled and watch what actually happens – in a given run – it’s startling how much activity and action and movement there is, particularly on."

Here's how it looks under a luge sled:

Tudor is a member of Dow’s Research and Development team.

Luge is the fastest of the Olympics’ sled sports. Lying flat on their backs, riders  plummet down a nearly mile-long tube of ice at speeds approaching 90 miles an hour.

Here's a look at what that looks like in Sochi:

Dow Chemical making U.S. sleds faster

Dow Chemical has been designing sleds for USA Luge for the past seven years. And that effort is apparently paying off.

Last weekend, Kate Hansen became the first American to win a World Cup luge event since 1997, and she did it on a sled designed by Dow.

Team USA has also picked up two silver medals at pre-Olympic events this winter. 

"When you get the sled run and you hit your marks, you get the times you're looking for."

 Scott Burr, another Dow R&D scientist, says the challenge is designing a luge sled that will be “comfortable” for the rider.

“They don’t get tense.  They let the sled run,” says Burr, “When you get the sled run and you hit your marks, you get the times you’re looking for.”

Time is very important in a sport where the difference between winning Olympic gold and finishing fourth and missing the podium altogether can be a matter of just hundredths of a second.

Duncan Kennedy is a former three-time U.S. Olympian. As the technical manager for USA Luge, he’s helped Dow design the new sled.

He says the new sled balances the need for speed and control, which he says is the “essence” of luge.

Being fast is also what makes luge one of the deadliest Olympic sports.

“If you got a sled that’s nervous and jumpy, and you can’t relax, you will never ever be fast on that,” says Kennedy.

Being fast is obviously the goal.  Being fast is also what makes luge one of the deadliest Olympic sports. 

Since Luge became an Olympic sport 50 years ago, two men have died at the games, including four years ago at the Vancouver games.

Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili died when he crashed on a training run. Olympic officials shortened the 2010 course after that accident and designed a slower course for Sochi.

But former Olympian Duncan Kennedy doesn’t blame the track.

“I hate to say it, but most of the issue with Nodar’s death…it was his fault to a large degree,” says Kennedy.

Kennedy says the Georgian was not experienced enough and was going too fast. 

But Scott Burr with the Dow design team says the danger is on the minds of the Dow Chemical scientists.

“It is on your mind every second of every design cycle,” says Burr, “And so that adds probably a level of over engineering,”

But Burr says the riders are "fearless."

The prototypes get tested in Lake Placid, New York, where he says members of the USA Luge team climb into previously untested prototype sleds, just to see how fast they can slide down the track.

“As crazy as it seems to us, it looks like a very dangerous sport,” says Burr, “Amongst (the athletes) you’ll hear the words ‘We consider this a very safe sport.  We can crash , and get up and go back, and a few minutes later and run again’.”

Dow scientists are busy now designing the next generation sled for the USA Luge team.