Bobsledding has evolved tremendously since early daredevils negotiated rickety, modified wooden sleds down icy runs in Europe. The mode of this transport is the bobsled, or as it is referred to outside of the US and Canada, the bobsleigh. The sport became popular in the mid 1800s with the first half pipe track built in St. Moritz, Switzerland, by Caspar Badrutt, owner of the Krup Hotel. Early aficionados rigged their own designs using wood delivery sleds and adding steering mechanisms, but it is American Stephen Whitney who is credited with the invention of the modern design, which bolts two sleds into one.
The vehicle got its name from the bobbing action crews made to increase the sled’s speed down the track. As the sport literally got faster, reaching speeds of up to 90 miles per hour (144 km/h), the sleds had to get stronger and more streamlined. It was this modern design that allowed them to reach these higher speeds.
The modern device is typically made with a lightweight metal frame and covered with fiberglass or a composite material, making it very aerodynamic. Original bobsleds seated crews of up to six, but today, they are made for either a two-person crew or four-person crew. The sled sits on steel runners, which are usually a competition regulated 26.3 inches (66.8 cm) long. Inside the bobsled is a steering mechanism made up of a steering pulley, steering axle and steering handle. On the outside, there are retractable push bars in the front and rear, and brakeman’s push bars on the end.
Bobsleds that are used in competition cannot exceed 12.46 feet (3.8 m) in length for a crew of four, and 8.85 feet (2.7 m) for a two man crew. In 1952, a weight limit was set for competition. The maximum allowable weight for both the crew and sled combined is 1,388 pounds (630 kg) for a crew of four men. In men’s bobsledding, the weight limit for a crew of two is 859 pounds (390 kg), and for women, a crew of two cannot exceed 749 pounds (340 kg).
While a bobsled must be lightweight and aerodynamic to navigate the winding, turning runs, it must be strong to withstand the rigors of high speeds and up to 5Gs. It must also hold up in the inevitable high-speed crashes — manmade tracks of artificial ice and concrete can be brutal.