March 15, 2010

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By Brian Danko

Jim ‘Cheech’ Garde has long been a part of the NASCAR racing scene on both the Sprint Cup series but also on the northeast modified scene building cars and racing.

But now, Garde is embarking on something bigger than auto racing, it is representing his country. Garde will be in charge of the building and maintaining the United States Bobsleds.

The USA bobsleds will be moving shop to North Carolina from Connecticut, where since the inception; they were designed and built under the masterful eyes and engineering knowledge of Bob Cuneo of Chassis Dynamics, long one of the premier fabricators and builders of modified race cars.

Garde will also receive help from 1988 NASCAR modified tour champion, Mike McLaughlin, once fabricating is essential for speed and performance.

Garde, who worked for Cuneo from the time he was 15 years old, was one of the first people to move down south and pursue a job in auto racing, initially hooking up with Connecticut based Race Hill Farms, driven by Harry Gant and later, modified legend, Ronnie Bouchard.

“Bob has always been a good friend of mine and we always stayed in touch. When he asked about doing this project, I was all for it.” Garde said from North Carolina, just days after the USA won the Gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Like many race fans, the bobsleds are the closest thing to racing and that is what got Geoff Bodine, the mastermind and front man to not only put up his own money to redesign and build bobsleds that were only built in the United States.

Bodine became intrigued with the bobsleds and in 1992, after noticing our American athletes were using European bobsleds and going nowhere fast, he knew he wanted to do something to help.

From there, Bodine set out on a “Made in America” theme and since then, the Americans have done more than just hold their own but more needs to be done.

Garde said that the biggest thing for the bobsleds is the money. And while money in auto racing buys you speed, money in the bobsleds allows you to test and more importantly develop the drivers for the future.

“The testing and the driver development are the biggest obstacles right now. “ Garde said. While the Olympics will fade from the public’s mind now that they are over, the work is just beginning for the 2014 Winter games that will be held in Russia.

“Like a race car coming back to the shop after a race, the sled is torn down and then put back together for the next event.”

The modified division has always been a series that car builders, fabricators and crew members think outside of the box and Garde said it is the nature of the division.

“Working in the Cup series, that are a lot of great racing people and minds there but a lot of them come from the modified and the supermodifieds. It is because these cars allow you to think creatively.”

While the next Olympics aren’t until 4 more years, there are always regional events and World events to get prepared for and that is what’s next on the list of to do for the new crew.

“Our main focus now is to get a test program and get data.”  Said Garde, given the nickname of Cheech by Bob Cuneo many years ago.

Since the American sleds won the World title and now have a Gold medal to prove that their efforts are producing winning sleds, all the other countries are lining up to buy them but Bodine, true to his word will not sell either the sleds or the technology to the foreign countries.

“The Germans have 50 full time people working on just the bobsleds and have about a $3.5 million dollar budget. “

Russia has always been one of the countries that ruled the bobsleds but even they can’t get one of the new sleds.  This year the top Russian sled crashed in the Olympics.

“They are throwing lots of money around trying to get one but we won’t sell.”

“Our goal is to keep is all in the USA. That is one of the reasons that Whelen Engineering got on board as a sponsor because all of their products are made in the United States.”  Garde said.

The bobsleds, much like a race car are built from a fixture or a jig but each sled has a uniqueness difference to each sled, much like a modified. While they all may look the same, there are small, subtle differences.

As mentioned before, one of the biggest obstacles to achieving new success is money.

Each January for the last couple of years, Geoff Bodine has held the Bodine bobsled challenge in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of two previous Winter Olympics.  Bodine gathers many of the NASCAR touring series champions and Cup drivers as well as many members of the NHRA to compete in bobsleds which raise money to not only build the newer sleds but continue with the latest technology..

While that is a fun event for all, Garde wishes that more racers, who have made a living at racing, get more involved not only with their name but with their money..

When asked what it meant to take over the building of the USA bobsleds, Garde was beaming. “This is such a huge honor. Talk about being proud, to be asked to do something that is representing your country is such an honor.

While he has a lot of big shoes to fill now that Bob Cuneo won’t be the lead person in charge of the sleds, he acknowledged that Cuneo is “an irreplaceable individual.”

Geoff Bodine, Bob Cuneo and Whelen Engineering have done a masterful job getting the bobsleds to the lofty position that they hold but Garde isn’t satisfied just yet.

“I won’t be happy until we are getting medals in the two man and women bobsleds and taking more medals in the four man bobsled.”

Besides the men winning the four men Gold medal the two women sled also captured a medal in the past Olympics.

With aspirations like that, it appears that the USA bobsled project will remain on the fast track.

(To learn more about the Bobsled project or to donate, visit Bodine Bobsled Project) http://www.bodynbobsled.com