News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by

The Ride: BMW builds Olympic competition vehicles, not just cars

Listen to story

Download this story 7MB

This year, Rio is home not only to the Olympic games but also the 2016 Paralympics.
Come September, athletes will compete in several track and field events — in wheelchairs. And many of them will do so in chairs manufactured by BMW.

“Built for breaking things — to reimagine, rethink and redefine what it means to be an athlete,” according to a BMW advertisement that is running in heavy rotation during the Olympics on NBC, the performance wheelchair is merely the latest example of BMW’s partnership with Team USA.

In a sponsorship deal that dates back six years, BMW has crafted devices that measure the velocity of long jumpers and software that measures and analyzes a swimmer’s kick, as well as a sleek and super fast two-man bobsled that helped Team USA claim its first Olympic medals in decades at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2012.

“First and foremost, it’s about performance for us,” said Brad Cracchiola, associate director of program management of BMW Group’s Designworks in Newbury Park, which designed the BMW bobsled and performance wheelchair.

“We want to look at projects that align with our brand, and we’re also looking at areas where we can lend our expertise,” he said. “BMW wants to do more than give just financial support. We want to give something more to the team and the sport itself through our own resources of engineering and development.”

What that means for the performance wheelchair that will be used by four Paralympic athletes competing in Rio next month is a chair that borrows many ideas from performance cars.

Its chassis is made of lightweight and rigid carbon fiber. BMW also devoted a lot of attention to the suspension to help it move more efficiently through turns, aerodynamics to cut through the wind and reductions in energy lost between the time the athlete spins the wheel and moves the chair.

Used in various track and field events, from short sprints to full-length marathons, the performance wheel chair can be propelled to speeds up to 60 mph in certain events, Cracchiola said.

Designworks worked on the performance wheelchair for a year and a half. The chairs themselves went through multiple prototypes and are bespoke to each athlete.

To develop the wheelchair, Cracchiola and his design team immersed themselves in the sport. They spent time with coaches and athletes. they went to events, they watched the races and observed all the planing and preparation and training that goes into each event. They examined the details of where races are won and lost.

In the case of the bobsled, the designers even hitched a ride with the U.S. team.

“On TV, it just looks fast,” said Cracchiola, who took a ride in the two-man bobsled in an effort to understand how to improve its dynamics. “In person, it looks fast and terrifying and extremely loud and violent and then when you get in, it feels like 20 car crates inside of a minute. And that’s not an exaggeration at all. That’s exactly what it feels like.”

The performance wheelchair will make its Olympic debut during the Paralympics in Rio in September.

Sue Carpenter is co-host of The Ride, Southern California Public Radio's series on modern mobility.