AILSA CHANG, HOST:
If football is a game of inches, the Olympic sledding sport luge is a game of millimeters. Athletes shoot feet first down an icy track faster than 90 miles per hour. The design of the sled itself can save fractions of a second and help lift athletes to the medal podium or drag them to the middle of the pack. We're going to meet a former USA luger who has been making sleds for almost a dozen countries for this month's Winter Games in Pyeongchang. He does his work from a two-car garage in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein brings us the story.
DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: The world headquarters of Kennedy Racing Sleds is on a side street in Lake Placid. Tucked behind a couple motorcycles and scooters, Duncan Kennedy stands at a milling machine and drills into steel bars.
DUNCAN KENNEDY: There's usually some hot metal flying around this place at any given time (laughter).
SOMMERSTEIN: No molten metal, but ribbons of metal fly. Kennedy's deadlining to get four sets of steels, the runners on luge sleds, to the Bulgarians for Pyeongchang.
KENNEDY: What runs on the ice a lot of people feel is sort of the holy grail of the sport.
SOMMERSTEIN: Kennedy should know. He's lived World Cup luge for 30 years as a brash Olympian known for a punk haircut and attitude, and then as a USA Luge coach and NBC's luge commentator at the Olympics. He once did a luge run miked for NBC, G forces hammering his voice box at 80 miles an hour.
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KENNEDY: Heading down into six, the first of the big looping corners. Little bit of drive to set up the eleventh - very important to set the eleventh up correctly.
SOMMERSTEIN: Kennedy used to run USA's sled-making program. Erin Hamlin won America's first singles Olympic luge medal in 2014 on a sled Kennedy had a hand in. But the USA Luge Federation fired Kennedy after those games. He says no reason was given. USA Luge says it wanted to go in a different direction. So now Kennedy makes sleds for Sweden, for Romania, for India. Kennedy bends one of the steels into shape in a vice and then measures the bend's radius to hundredths of a millimeter.
KENNEDY: A hair is like a tenth, I think.
SOMMERSTEIN: In luge, you can win or lose by a hundredth of a second, so all the parts of the sled - these steels, the shell an athlete lies on, the candy cane-shaped kuffens used to steer, the metal bridge that holds it together - it all has to be tuned in perfect harmony.
KENNEDY: In other words, you don't want an athlete to all of a sudden start to slide really well, feel the track nicely, great position, and something's just not there with the sled.
SOMMERSTEIN: The giants of luge - the Germans, the Italians - have whole teams of sled designers. And everyone's a spy. Kennedy says he even once hid in a bush and peered through binoculars at a German sled.
KENNEDY: When you go to the track for any given race, any given team is sort of eyeing up or even full-on taking pictures of other people's sleds.
SOMMERSTEIN: Kennedy sands down the steels. He glances around at the clutter of scribbled notes, tools and sled parts, and says he'd never let a competitor in here like this.
KENNEDY: Some of the stuff we're looking at right now actually would never, ever be out in the open.
SOMMERSTEIN: Kennedy's been getting calls from bigger countries like Austria and Canada. After South Korea, he's going to design a new sled for Tucker West, one of USA's most promising sliders. He chuckles.
KENNEDY: I mean, let's face it. We're not talking any big money contracts. You know, this isn't Formula One. It all comes down to basically bragging rights with luge, you know?
SOMMERSTEIN: Kennedy says he'll always root for USA lugers. He was one. But he'd like to brag one of his sleds helped edge an athlete to victory. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Lake Placid, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOS CAMPESINOS SONG, "YOU! ME! DANCING!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.