Olympic speed demon started with a Grand Am
“Dad! My first car? The Grand Am?”
Kaillie Humphries — Canada’s gold medalist in women’s bobsleigh (she’s the pilot, Heather Moyse is the brakeman) — consults with her father on the details of her first car: a red, two-door Pontiac Grand Am.
Exuberant, confident and determined, Humphries is familiar to Canadians not only from her trips to the podium as world and double Olympic champion. She was also featured on billboards in the Olympic “We Are Winter” campaign, as well in television ads for Sport Chek pushing a van in circles on a darkened parking lot (something teams actually do, on occasion).
The blond bomber’s tag line: “Toughness.”
The Calgary native credits her success to her supportive family and network of friends — including that first car.
“I did not pay for that myself,” she says. “That car, I’d gotten from my dad. He bought it and I would make payments toward it.”
A competitive ski racer at the time, the vehicle was a godsend for both her and her parents.
“It was more they just got sick of driving me to the ski hill,” she says with a laugh. “There were 4:30 to 5 a.m. wakeups to get me to the ski hill, or to get me to the bus to get to the ski hill. So, at 16, that stopped. They were like, ‘You can drive yourself. Get your licence, go!’ ”
Humphries had already set her sights on winning Olympic gold.
“I’ve always been a pretty determined person,” she says matter-of-factly. “I set my goals, I aim high and I work extremely hard to make sure that I achieve them.”
But a frank self-assessment at age 17 prompted her to reconsider her future in skiing, and give bobsleigh a try instead (her fallback was speed skating).
She also reassessed her choice of cars. Though peppy, the Grand Am wasn’t what she needed.
“I had it for a year, or maybe two years, but my next car after that was a Chevy Trailblazer, the SUV. It was a bit bigger, better for equipment and safer on our Alberta, extremely cold, winter roads.”
Starting as a pilot, moving to brakeman and then switching back to piloting, Humphries has worked to perfect her skills.
“The top pilots in the world feel, and that’s how you’re able to adjust on the fly — that’s how you’re able to be consistently quick all the time,” she explains. “It’s very hard to control the sled an inch to the left or right, to have a perfect run, because so much is out of your control.
“The good guys can do it consistently because they feel a lot and adjust on the go. They know what to do and how to get to that perfect line every time, no matter what.”
If that sounds familiar to motorsport fans, that’s because piloting a 200-kg double-axle sled down an icy chute at speeds of 160 km/h has more in common with auto racing than just nerves of steel and split-second reflexes.
Auto makers are heavily involved in the sport, where hundredths of a second can be the difference between finishing first and last.
McLaren helped improve British bobsleighs and skeletons. Ferrari designed and built the Italian team’s sled. BMW redesigned and built American sleds, and also works with the German and Swiss teams.
“There are very similar principles,” Humphries says. “Our sled builder, Eurotech, was one that had built race cars for the Marcos Racing Company. They’re taking a lot of the car-racing technology and transferring it over into bobsled.
“We saw it with BMW and the Americans this year … the sleds they were building were absolutely lightening fast.”
And like motorsport, sponsorship is critical. The first car Humphries bought independent of her parents was a deal she worked out with a local dealership for a 2006 Dodge Ram 1500.
“It’s a challenge. You have to go out and make people believe in your dream as much as you do. People who aren’t family or friends or invested — you’ve got to try and make them believe,” says the 28-year-old. “And when you’re starting out, it’s a huge, huge challenge: how do you sell yourself?”
Humphries is now using her success to mentor young athletes and lend support to anti-bullying campaigns.
She’s also pushing for a mixed-gender, four-person bobsleigh event, with the ultimate goal of creating a four-woman event.
For now, she’s getting reacquainted with her current set of wheels, a white BMW X5.
“I hadn’t driven a car in a month and I got in my X5 this morning and I was like, ‘Oh, shoot! This is what it’s like to drive a car again!’ It took me five seconds to sort it all out.”
The X5 combines the power she loves in a truck with nimble handling and responsiveness.
Humphries is also looking forward to hitting the road in the café racer motorcycle she’s ordered from a custom shop — a converted 1972 Yamaha.
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