Dal toboganners prepare to take on competition

Concrete toboganning a subtle balance between safety and performance

Members of the Dal concrete toboggan team from 2009 cruise at 60 kilometres an hour. Photo courtesy of Matthew Antolin.

The Dalhousie department of engineering is preparing to build another concrete toboggan.

Matthew Antolin, in his final year of industrial engineering and Benjamin Rhyno and Angelo Di Quinzio, both in the final year of their civil engineering program, will compete for the title of world's fastest concrete toboggan at the Great Northern Concrete Toboggan Race.

The race is the oldest and largest engineering competition in Canada and has been running since 1975. Teams from universities across Canada will compete against each other.

But what exactly is a concrete toboggan?

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The pneumatic brake system air canister on the back of the Dal toboggan reads "Get In, sit down, shut up, and hold on!". Photo: Andrew Kudel

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Members of the Dalhousie concrete toboggan team explain some of the features of their toboggan design.

A concrete toboggan can be anything a team dreams up as long as it meets certain weight restrictions and safety regulations. The toboggan has to weigh less than 300 pounds and be inspected for safety by the race organizing committee prior to travelling down the hill.

"As long as the running surface or bottom of the toboggan is made out of concrete then the rest of toboggan can be made out of whatever a team wants to use," says Antolin.

Teams typically build the rest of the toboggan out of steel or metal. Individual teams fundraise to cover building expenses and travel costs associated with the toboggan.

The team from Dalhousie gets funding from the university as well as sponsorships from local businesses. The cost of each toboggan varies from university to university but they typically range from $1000 thousand dollars all the way up to $50,000 in some cases.

In order to determine which design is best at the competition, toboggans are judged on factors such as use of materials, design, report presentation and racing performance.

Teams race individually down a closed course, typically at a ski hill, in a time trial format.

The goal is to go as fast as possible and also stop as close to the finish line as possible. All of this has to happen with five people riding in the toboggan at the same time.

The most difficult and dangerous part of the race is trying to stop close to the finish line when in an open toboggan racing down a hill at 60 kilometres per hour.

"Last year when we stopped at the finish line we all flew about 15 feet out of the toboggan and into the snow. We were going 60 kilometres an hour and completely stopped our toboggan in less than 10 feet after we started braking, " says Rhyno.

Even though toboggan riders can experience some bumps and bruises, safety is taken seriously.

"You need a roll cage or roll bar on the toboggan to be able to ensure that if it flips over the people riding in it won't get crushed and will be safe," says Rhyno.

Last years toboggan was outfitted with a roll bar to ensure that riders would be safe in the event of a crash.

This is where the balance between safety and performance has to be addressed properly.

"At the same time, you need minimum role cage because you also need to be able to be ejected safely when stopping abruptly at high speeds," says Di Quinzio.

With the core of the team back again from last year, the team hopes to improve on a third-place overall finish and move up the leader board to first.

"We are pretty confident this year and are hoping that our experience pays off," says Antolin.

The team is experienced but still faces the challenge of creating a toboggan that is durable as well as fast.

"The challenge is being able to connect the concrete base to a rigid frame while keeping it flexible and durable enough to handle the stresses of riding over the snow," says Di Quinzio.

The plan for improvements is to make the front edge of the toboggan into a horseshoe shape to keep snow from getting caught under the toboggan in order to help the team move down the hill as fast as possible.

Riding down a hill in an open toboggan at a faster speed than most cars travel on city streets is unlike any experience most people will ever be a part of.

But the team is looking for more people to get involved with the project, as the competition is more than just barrelling down a hill. Teams are required to have a theme, a team costume and an informative display set up before competition.

"People don't need to know anything about engineering to be a part of this competition," says Rhyno.

"We welcome membership to our team from anyone in the university community," adds Antolin.

After the competition is over, teams get together to talk about the thrill of racing down a hill at high speed and heal bumps and bruises.

"That's why it's great to go to the competition. There are roughly 300 engineers and students together at a banquet at the end of it all. It's a good party," says Di Quinzio.


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