By Ken Otterbourg
FORTUNE -- At the Winter Olympics, technology is everywhere, from the waxing science of cross-country skis to the controversial, skin-tight suits used by the American speedskaters. But the breakout star of the Sochi games might just be the sleds used by the U.S. bobsled team.
The men have already won their first two-man medal in 62 years. And the U.S. women came away with both the silver and bronze in Wednesday's competition.
The U.S. sleds are black, menacing beasts. They're designed by BMW, with their bodies fabricated by DeBotech Inc., in the heart of NASCAR country in Mooresville, N.C. DeBotech is a small manufacturer with sales of about $5 million. The company originally made a name for itself in auto racing and has since moved into military and other commercial applications.
The secret of DeBotech's success is its mastery of carbon fiber, which is light and strong. Olympic sleds have a weight limit. So a lighter, carbon-fiber body allows the weight to be distributed better, lower to the ice. That makes for better handling through the turns. In the case of a two-man sled, some 80 pounds that used to be in the body are now down in the chassis, helping the sleds stay in the groove.
"It is very, very fast," says Hans DeBot, the company's president and founder. The fiberglass sleds of the past just weren't cutting it, he says. "They needed to up the ante and build a better sled."
DeBotech gets most of its carbon fiber from Cytec Industries Inc. The material is stored in freezers at the company's offices and fabrication shop. The fiber comes as a fabric and is rolled out and cut, then placed on molds and put in an autoclave, which heats the material under pressure. The finished product looks like armor -- shiny, black, and tough.
DeBot got his start making carbon-fiber masts for sailboats, so he understands how to make a composite that can withstand stress. The bobsleds are hybrids, made with carbon, Kevlar, and other materials, tweaked here and there to be strong in the right places and be responsive in others. "It's a bit of a black art," DeBot said. "The secret isn't the carbon fiber. It isn't the chassis. It's all of it coming together with the athletes."
The first bobsled DeBotech built was in 2002, just before the Salt Lake City games. A driver sought him out, and DeBot downloaded some specs from the web and went to work. The driver missed the cut, but the sled attracted attention and DeBot was soon known in bobsled circles as the "composite guy."
In 2009, the recession hit, and DeBotech -- like many of the companies that supply parts to NASCAR teams -- watched its business dry up. Even today, the office parks in Mooresville are still littered with leasing signs. But during those lean years, DeBot changed his business model and began diversifying.
He bit the bullet and got his company ISO 9001 and AS9100 certified, which allowed him to start competing for military, aerospace, and traditional automotive jobs. The company got its first Department of Defense contract in 2010 (making, among other things, a battery case for Apache helicopters) and its first project for General Motors (GM) in 2011. Other clients include Chrysler, Lamborghini, and Red Bull. However, carbon fiber is still expensive compared with other materials -- so don't look for it on a low-end sedan anytime soon.
The finals of the men's four-man bobsled competition is Sunday -- the same day as the Daytona 500 -- and the U.S. team will be driving a sled known as Night Train 2. Gentlemen, start your pushing.
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