The Olympics

Meet the North Carolina company behind the lightning-fast U.S. bobsleds

February 20, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

Located in the heart of NASCAR country, composite-material specialist DeBotech builds stuff for everyone from the Department of Defense to Lamborghini. Now it's helping the Americans win medals.

By Ken Otterbourg

U.S. women's bobsled Team 1 slides down the track on the way to a silver medal in Sochi.

U.S. women's bobsled Team 1 slides down the track on the way to a silver medal in Sochi.

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 The company originally made a name for itself in auto racing and has since moved into military and other commercial applications.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."

MORE: Spanx CEO out after building mega-brand

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.

MORE: What Lego has in common with Apple

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.

  • Brands stay serious with Sochi ads

    In contrast to the beery humor of Super Bowl ads, Olympic advertisers go for the heart.

    By Daniel Roberts, writer-reporter

    FORTUNE -- Perhaps the most "Super Bowly" ad of this year's Super Bowl was a lengthy Bud Light spot that packed in celebrities like Don Cheadle and Arnold Schwarzenegger with the band One Republic, all part of an elaborate surprise night out for a non-celebrity Manhattan bro in his twenties.

    That kind MORE

    Feb 7, 2014 5:00 AM ET
  • London's extreme Olympic makeover

    It's widely expected that London will lose money from hosting the 2012 summer games. But the city's real goals are more abstract: re-branding its international image.

    By Daniel Roberts, reporter

    FORTUNE -- This summer will bring the most sponsored, most spent-on, most visited Olympics in human history. But the real story? A global city is set to re-brand itself.

    London is expected to drop more than $40 billion dollars to host the MORE

    Jun 1, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • BMW's ultimate Olympic machine

    Any corporation can be an Olympic sponsor. It just takes money. BMW went one better and created a new way for athletes to train.

    By Daniel Roberts, reporter

    FORTUNE -- If you were to head down to your local BMW dealership between now and August, you'd be able to test-drive a vehicle, and if you do it on a "Drive for Team USA" day, BMW will give $10 to the U.S. Olympic Committee MORE

    May 31, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • London locks down for the Olympics

    Security spending has already topped $1 billion to keep the Games safe.  But what happens to all those cameras when the crowds go home?

    By Andrew Rosenblum, contributor

    FORTUNE -- On July 7, 2005, one day after Londoners received word that the city would host the 2012 Olympics, terrorist bombs tore through the public transit system, killing 56 people. To prevent a repeat attack and protect the roughly 25,000 athletes, family MORE

    May 30, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • Poor Sport: When Olympic athletes have to moonlight

    To make ends meet, team members from some of the Games' less popular sports have to take on an extra job or two.

    By Caitlin Keating, reporter

    FORTUNE -- The U.S government is one of only a few countries that do not give money to Olympians. Glenn Merry, the CEO of the U.S. Rowing Association said that every team within the United States is funded differently, with only 30% to 35% MORE

    May 29, 2012 5:01 AM ET
  • Rich Sport: U.S. Olympic swimmers float on cash

    America's mermen and women have some of the best support in the country, but even the breakout stars must diversify to keep their heads above water.

    By Alex Konrad, reporter

    FORTUNE -- Americans love to swim: 93 million people do so and spend $1.4 billion on suits every year. For professional swimmers, this means both lucrative sponsorship and a deep-pocketed support organization -- USA Swimming raises about $100 million a year, MORE

    May 29, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • Will NBC's Olympic investment pay off?

    The Peacock stands to lose money on the big games, but small victories will help ease the pain.

    By Daniel Roberts, reporter

    FORTUNE -- Last June NBC spent a reported $4.38 billion to secure Olympic broadcast rights through 2020. That's a hefty windfall for the IOC, which gets nearly half its revenue from fees broadcasters are willing to pay (see chart above). Of NBC's big expenditure, $775 million will go toward MORE

    May 25, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • Wall Street gets behind the Olympic games

    High-profile financiers are stepping in to support future Olympians.

    By Katie Benner, writer

    FORTUNE -- The U.S. Olympic Committee needed a better way to raise money. Until recently, direct mail -- the USOC's primary source of private donations -- yields on average a $20 gift from those who donated. "We were raising less in private contributions than the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs," says Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for the MORE

    May 24, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • The (very big) bucks behind the Olympics

    Countries almost always overspend to play host.  Roll over each city on the medal below for more on how much they've shelled out.

    By Alex Konrad; Infographic Nicolas Rapp

    FORTUNE -- Even before the athletes could be paid professionals who might make millions bringing home a medal, the Olympics were about money. The first modern Games, held in Athens in 1896, where nearly canceled when funds fell short -- Greek businessman MORE

    May 24, 2012 5:00 AM ET
Search This Column
View all entries from this: Week, Month
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by VIP.