He’s winning by design

Last modified: Thursday, May 01, 2014
Sometimes everything just comes together.

Michael V. Scully, 42, grew up snowboard racing at Crotched and Temple mountains. Looking back on that time he chuckles. Who would have guessed that carving down those icy New England slopes would be the perfect training ground for a future bobsled designer?

And not just any bobsled designer; an Olympic-medal winner.

On Feb. 17 - for the first time in 62 years - Team USA won a medal in the two-man bobsled competition. They did it riding in a sled designed by Scully.

As the creative director at BMW DesignWorks USA, Scully has been part of many exciting projects. He was part of the team that developed the BMW H2R, a hydrogen-powered vehicle that set nine world speed records for a hydrogen powered cars in 2004.

But, designing the new Team USA bobsled combined two things that Scully knows and loves: race cars and winter sports. It was “the most rewarding project I have been a part of so far,” Scully said.

“It’s rare to have such a perfect collision of personal and professional interests,” he added.

Scully grew up in Dublin. As a 16-year old student at Dublin School, he was sponsored by Burton as a snowboard racer. Snowboarding gave Scully a competitive mindset and taught him how approach a course, develop a racing rhythm and see the fastest path through corners.

After high school, Scully left snowboarding and began college. He was taking sculpture classes at Keene State College and racing cars competitively, but hadn’t yet found his “direction.”

“I was incredibly interested in the mechanical side of things and the emotional and visceral development of sculpture,” Scully said. “But I didn’t feel like I’d found my purpose.”

Then one day his father, Daniel V. Scully, an architect in Keene, started a conversation that changed everything.

“I remember my dad said to me one day, ‘You seem really interested in racing and sculpture. You know you could combine those two things. It’s called industrial design.”

And, just like that, Scully found his passion. He enrolled in the industrial design program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. Industrial design, he said, was the perfect combination of art and engineering.

While at Carnegie Mellon, Scully began an apprenticeship at a race car manufacturer in Providence, R.I.

Working there on summer and spring vacations, he learned a lesson that served him for the rest of his career: how to focus on designing something to be its most efficient and purposeful.

In 1996, after graduating, Scully moved to L.A. and took a job working for the North American division of BMW at DesignWorksUSA.

Scully loved the job and said he felt very prepared. At Carnegie Mellon University industrial design students had exposure to drama, robotics and a variety of outside majors, he said. This exposure prepared him for what he was experiencing at DesignWorksUSA. “Industrial designers need to be able to interface with people from other departments and integrate other disciplines,” he said.

Two years ago, Team USA decided they needed to re-engineer their winter equipment for the upcoming Olympics. To do this, they turned to the North American division of BMW for help with creating a faster bobsled.

Scully was immediately chosen as the lead designer.

With his history as a snowboarder and race car driver, Scully felt prepared. But, just to make sure he understood the sport fully, he decided to take a ride in the four-man version of the bobsled. “It is the designer’s responsibility to understand the context in which the vehicle needs to function,” Scully said, explaining why he felt it was critical that he rode in the sled.

“It was so violent and almost chaotic,” he said. Inside the bobsled, there is very little to hold on to or stabilize against. “Your body is shaped into uncomfortable positions and it is very jarring,” Scully said.

Unlike driving a race car, where the force of gravity can be felt as the car accelerates and goes around corners, each turn in the bobsled feels like a collision, Scully said.

“In a race car you can get 3-3.5 lateral Gs in a corner,” Scully said. “In a bobsled you get 5 Gs of force on corners. It feels like an immediate acceleration of force. It feels like you are going from 0-1,000 in a split second.”

Scully said his first thought after getting out of the sled was simple: what can we do to quiet down the experience so the bobsledders can focus on the important things?

Thus began the process or re-designing the bobsled.

Scully and his team questioned everything – from materials used to make the bobsled, to weight distribution and handgrip placement.

Since the team had to adhere to the very strict rules governing the shape, width, size of bumpers, position of axles, etc. of the bobsled, the design team decided to focus on what they could control.

“We didn’t just want to understand how the outside of the sled impacts speed, we wanted understand the entire ‘ecosystem’ of the sled - inside and out,” Scully said,

To do this, Scully made computer scans of the athletes inside the bobsled. This gave the team an idea of exactly where feet, arms and head placement would be for each athlete. The team used Computational Fluid Dynamics testing - essentially like sticking the prototypes in a computerized wind tunnel - to help understand the aerodynamics of the sled.

But, Scully said, “The sled is almost always transitioning from one direction to another, which is very different than moving in a straight ahead flow.”

For this reason, the team also needed direct feedback from the athletes themselves.

U.S. bobsled pilot Steve Holcomb had suffered from a degenerative eye disease for most of his career, Scully explained.

“This gave him a sixth sense. He drove by feel,” Scully said.

For Scully, this meant Holcomb’s feedback was “incredible.”

Utilizing the feedback Holcomb provided, in conjunction with findings from the CFD testing and results from two main prototypes, Scully and the team at BMW were able to deliver six prototype sleds to the athletes to get used to using by March 2012.

Scully felt confident about the sled, but when Team USA crossed the finished line and won the bronze medal, shattering a 62-year medal slump, Scully felt “overwhelmingly proud.”

“It feels incredible,” he said. “You just hope the sled facilitates greatness in this athletic human endeavor. For these athletes, this is their life’s goal - and that lends a meaning to the project that is unique,” he said.

As for the future?

Scully said, “it will be challenging to find something that has so many aspects built in to it that so personally exciting.”