Bay City company meets an Olympic-size challenge

When the U.S. Olympic Bobsled/Skeleton team needed help building a prototype for a new sled, they called on Gougeon Brothers Inc. in Bay City. And when Gougeon Brothers needed help building the prototype, they called on the Saginaw Bay Community Sailing Association (SBCSA).

The question now, though, isn’t whether or not the prototype created here last winter will be built and used in competition. It’s whether or not the bobsled season will take place this winter. No matter what happens, though, Gougeon Brothers and the SBCSA are excited about the role they played in developing a new prototype sled.

For several years, Gougeon Brothers – known internationally for its West System and Pro-Set epoxy products used for building and repairing boats – has provided epoxies to repair and maintain the U.S. Olympic Bobsled/Skeleton equipment.

Volunteers from the Saginaw Bay Community Sailing Association worked with technicians from Gougeon Brothers to build a prototype sled for US Olympic Bobsled/Skeleton team.But in 2019, the team asked Gougeon for something more challenging. The team needed a prototype for a new sled and wanted to know if Gougeon could help.

“As a company, we don’t build parts for people, but people on our staff have the skills to build that type of thing,” says Jeff Wright, Gougeon Brothers’ vice president of technical services.

Gougeon Brothers couldn’t say no. “First of all, it’s the United States Bobsled Team, so we want to support that, and then it also helps keep our skills strong, by getting hands-on experience and building parts that we’ve never built before.”

Wright likes to say that “Gougeon Brothers is a small company, but we cast a big shadow,” and this Olympic-size project proves it.

The Gougeon team was excited about the project, but a little concerned about the logistics. “It wasn’t a debate whether or not to do it, but how to get the time to do the whole project,” says Wright.

A pair of Gougeon technicians were working steadily, doing much of the preliminary work. But they couldn’t build molds fast enough to meet the team’s deadline.

Fortunately, Wright knew where to get the additional help. He called on Gougeon retiree Joe Parker, a founding member of the SBCSA. Parker, who teaches adult boat building, has maintained ties with his former co-workers.

“Gougeon Brothers have always given the SBCSA space to build boats,” Parker says, so when they were looking for help with the bobsled project, they didn’t have look far. “Gougeon Brothers has always supported SBCSA in any way they can. “

The boat building classes meet at Gougeon Brothers a couple times a week, he says, making it easy to pull together a group of about 25 volunteers. Even though none of the volunteers had experience with sleds, Wright and Parker knew they could do it. Boat building requires knowledge about advanced geometry and building curves. Those skills also apply to bobsleds.

The bobsled is designed for maximum speed and aerodynamics while still protecting the riders.“Building compound, curved shapes is difficult,” Wright says, “It’s not two by fours and nails, so to speak, so when they came in, they understood right away that even though it’s not very big, it’s a lot of complicated geometry to work around.”

The volunteers were eager to tackle the project.

“This was a cool opportunity to bring these people into Gougeon Brothers and teach them some advanced composite stuff – as well as have the manpower to physically get it done,” Wright says.

The manpower was the last step in a long process. First, the bobsled team worked with BMW on the design. Then Gougeon Brothers did the technical work on the laminate design and shape. Finally, with guidance from Gougeon staff, the SBCSA spent 200 volunteer hours building the molds, then another 600 hours building the parts and assembling the parts.

It took a few weeks, but they finished the prototype in October, just in time to run tests for the 2019 bobsled racing season.

“It was actually a really fun project for those involved,” Parker says.

Wright says he was impressed that everyone was able to make time to commit to the project. “We did this all during the day, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” says Wright, who applauded the effort. “It was a great effort. Our tech staff would be out there guiding – we made sure they had the directions and the materials, and they followed what we wanted to do. They brought their own ideas too.”

Most importantly, the entire team here had the safety of the bobsledders in mind. The new sled is fast, but also protects the team. “In today’s day and age people should not be getting injured in this,” Wright says.

The prototype went to Lake Placid, N.Y., where it performed well during trials. Coach Mike Dionne says the prototype’s performance was “pretty decent.” He says he thinks it will be a useful model for the team’s new sleds. Dionne says the performance tests look at not only safety, but also speed and aerodynamics.

As of now, Dionne says the million-dollar question is not whether the new sled will be produced, but if there will be a season this winter.

No matter what happens, Wright says Gougeon Brothers and Olympic bobsledding have a longstanding relationship. Building the prototype solidified that relationship for him.

“I anticipate them using our products and technical service in the future, but if they called today and said they wanted to build another [sled], it would be hard to say no.”

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