Canadian Consulting Engineer

Speed Fiend

Imagine driving on a highway at your normal speed -- let's say 120 kilometres an hour (we're telling the truth here). Now imagine you have no engine, no exterior, in fact ... no car. You are just a fe...

March 1, 1999   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Imagine driving on a highway at your normal speed — let’s say 120 kilometres an hour (we’re telling the truth here). Now imagine you have no engine, no exterior, in fact … no car. You are just a few inches off the ground and between you and that hard surface there’s a bit of fibreglass and some steel. And oh, you are hurtling downwards at a steep angle, rocketing around sharp curves, sometimes upside down and driving blind.

That’s what Bob Gasper, P.Eng., used to do in his spare time while holding down a day job as a consulting engineer in Calgary. Today he rarely gets up to that speed, but thanks in part to his engineering background, he’s helping other slightly insane Canadians to go even faster.

The sport of luge was as foreign to Gasper while growing up in the little farming community of Bruno, Saskatchewan as were skyscrapers. In fact, he wasn’t much good at any athletic endeavour. This remained true through his university mechanical engineering education in Regina and Saskatoon, and his initial years in the consulting business in the early 1980s in Lloydminster. But a brief encounter with a friend who was starting a luge club, and the fact that peers scoffed at his desire to try such a dangerous sport, gave him the motivation.

With the 1988 Winter Olympics approaching in Calgary, the province of Alberta put money into building a world-class luge track and developing lugers. After an unpromising start, Gasper began to show good results and managed a fourth-place finish at the 1985 Canadian championships. Soon he switched to doubles, and became an excellent driver. A driver is required to lie on his back virtually on top of his partner, making split-second decisions and guiding the careering sled with subtle shifts of weight.

He and Andre Benoit competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, coming tenth in the former, thus marking a new Canadian achievement. With Clay Ives, Gasper beat that accomplishment with an eighth place showing at Lillehammer in 1994, nine-tenths of a second off the gold medal mark.

As an engineer he comprehended some basic things about the sled. “I understood the principles of acceleration and physics,” he says. “Races are won and lost in the slowest part of the track, the beginning part. When you make a mistake at slow speed the time difference between what could have been your finish and what your actual finish time will be compounds itself all the way down.” He also understood the properties of fibreglass and steel, and how steel slides on ice. This knowledge helped him to start designing his own sleds in the early 1990s.

Gasper says that 25 per cent of success in luging is based on equipment. If its design is in any way inferior to a competitor’s, it will rob its riders of the tenths of seconds that mean the difference between victory and defeat. When he retired at age 35 in 1994, he came up with a blueprint for others to design their own sleds. This January, Calgary Luge Club junior class sliders used two of his sleds to win gold and silver at the Canadian Luge Championships.

Today Gasper is senior project engineer at McDonald Engineering Group in Calgary. He hasn’t found anything in engineering that can electrify him like his former sport. “It was like flying an F-18 jet fighter in conjunction with a Formula One race car,” he says. “It was the ultimate speed rush thrill.” But such thrills came with a cost. Gasper suffered horrific crashes, including one that was called “career ending” when he flew off the track at about 100 kilometres an hour and drove his head into an observation tower, sustaining a severe concussion and a badly broken arm.

Maybe being a hard-working engineer, feet firmly on the ground, isn’t so bad after all?Shane Peacock


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