The training has already proved its worth. Bill Johnson -- who in 1984 became
the first American man to take a gold medal in downhill racing -- mastered his
incredible tuck in the wind tunnel. And the sleek, aerodynamic style of Doug
Lewis, a hot new downhiller, is attributable to his wind-tunnel training.
"There's no way a skier can effectively evaluate and improve his aerodynamics on
a downhill course," Holden says. "But in the wind tunnel, we can help him learn
how to diminish drag." As a 200-horsepower motor generates a 70-mile-per-hour
wind, the racer either watches a video of a course, moving his body as if he
were skiing, or experiments with different positions. Sensors in the platform
measure the changes in drag caused by his movements; a digital readout on the
floor displays drag figures and improved time. Another screen shows the skier
himself so that he can correlate drag and position.
But just how much of a difference does the training make? "In a low-tuck
position, with arms held tight in against the body, a skier generates a drag of
about eighteen pounds," Holden explains. "But if he holds his arms along the
outside of his legs, as some skiers do in approaching a jump, drag can increase
to forty-three pounds."
Other countries have wind-tunnel training programs, but the American
program's success at integrating the tunnel work into racing is unique. "You
have to study what really works on.the slope and apply it in the tunnel -- not
find something that works in the tunnel and try to apply it on the slope,"
Holden says. Stability is crucial: If a skier's position in the tunnel has low
drag but he feels uncomfortable or can't hold it, it's no good.
Downhill racers aren't the only visitors to Calspan's tunnel. Skaters, ski
jumpers and luge sleds have all come to improve their performance. "Jumping is
an area with lots of potential, and it's never been studied in any great
detail," says Holden. "Once a jumper leaves the ground, it's all aerodynamics."
He concedes that wind-tunnel ski jumping is far from perfect. "The technical
equipment isn't fully developed. Also, it's difficult for the skier to get the
feel of a real jump, because he must hold himself differently in the tunnel in
order to simulate the correct angle between body and wind."
During the next year, Holden will take his testing to the slopes. He is just
finishing a device that will fit into a ski binding and measure forces as a
skier actuaily negotiates a course. A small backpack housing a portable computer
records the readings, and after the skier completes the course, these are
matched frame by frame with a video of the run. "We'll be able to tell in each
instance how the forces are generated by the skier -- on which ski, on which
edge, toward the front or toward the back," explains Holden. The measurements
will be used to improve overail skiing technique. "A lot of people forget," he
says, "that not only are top competitors mentally tough, they ski in a
technically superior manner."