Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Jack Lagree: Dannemora’s Bobsled Guru

Flush with success in the North Country Championships, taking first and second place, the Lagree Bobsled Club teams were off to St. Moritz, Switzerland, to practice and prepare for the upcoming world championships. In the end, the American squads were disappointed with their results in Europe, finishing fifteenth and twenty-third.

For Jack Lagree, it meant nothing more than getting back to work. He was already planning to prepare up to four sleds for the next Olympics. Despite growing competition from several large American corporations, the results coming out of Jack’s tiny garage were highly sought after by the best bobsledders in the country.

He made no secret of the process. Purchasing old sleds from Italy (machines that he claimed were the best in the world), he then stripped them down and rebuilt them based on his own designs and modifications. The results were indisputable.

In late 1982, Jack was also hard at work on a project geared towards raising the skills of American competitors. To support efforts at the youth level, he constructed ten sleds built to scale for the Lake Placid Peewees. Youth training sessions were held each weekend, and among the instructors was Jack Lagree, a man clearly dedicated to his sport.

Despite all the important work he did, Jack remained largely a behind-the-scenes presence. Insiders of the sport, however, were aware of his great ability, including the drivers. In 1983, America’s most noted bobsledder of the decade, Brent Rushlaw of Saranac Lake, was constantly in the headlines, while Lagree, who designed and built Rushlaw’s sleds, naturally received less attention from the media. For Lagree, it wasn’t a problem; the drivers, after all, were the stars, and he was part of a team that was happy to have Rushlaw at the reins. As Charlie Decker wrote in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, covering an event held in January:

Saranac Lake’s Brent Rushlaw made a mockery of the competition in the first bobsled race of the season, sliding almost two seconds faster than any other sled to capture the National Recognition Cup two-man event at the Olympic bobrun over the weekend. In a sport where winners and losers are usually separated by hundredths of a second, Rushlaw’s four-heat total of 4:10:82 bettered runner-up Fred Fritsch’s 4:12:76 by 1.94 seconds, establishing the veteran local driver as the man to beat in the upcoming Two-Man Nationals.

The victory was Rushlaw’s 18th in the last 26 two-man races he has competed in at Mt. Van Hoevenberg. He is racing under the Lagree Bobsled Club banner this season, and is being sponsored locally by The Cottage, along with Budweiser and Christy Hill Development Co. of Squaw Valley, California.

More success followed for Lagree’s sleds, with the team of Bob Hickey and Rich Bisso taking the North American Two-Man Bobsled Championship, making a comeback to overtake Rushlaw and Jim Tyler, who finished second.

Throughout the 1980s, Jack remained a force in the world of bobsledding. His sleds won many races, and his work with the youth program continued. In some competitions, more than fifty teams of teens and pre-teens raced down the track in specially built Lagree sleds. In 1985, he shipped additional youth sleds to Calgary, Alberta, where a new bobrun was soon to open, built for the upcoming 1988 Olympics.

The 1980s saw many controversies in the world of US bobsledding. Despite Lagree’s proven ability as a designer and builder of aerodynamic sleds, enormous sums of money from large contributors led to much greater involvement by corporations. Their powerful influence and unlimited funds often tended towards high-tech solutions to performance improvement. Low-budget operations were largely pushed aside.

Still, when a badly needed push track was installed at Lake Placid in 1989 — a vital training aid for bobsled participants — the new, lightweight sled, designed with wheels to roll along the concrete path, was the creation of none other than Jack Lagree. He was just too good to ignore.

In early 1990, Jack was named by the US Bobsled Federation as the technical coach for the 1992 US Olympic Bobsled Team. It was a great honor, confirming his contributions in the past and his proven ability to elevate the national team’s performance.

He also served as technical coach to the United States Bobsled Team, and in that capacity, Jack accompanied the squad to Switzerland barely a month later. America’s team made the journey to join in a great celebration marking the 100-Year Anniversary of Bobsledding, a sport born a century earlier in St. Moritz.

What started as a great adventure never came to fruition, instead ending tragically for Jack and the American team. On February 2, 1990, he collapsed at the Zurich, Switzerland, airport and died of a heart attack. He was only sixty-one years old.

His work lived on through the many sleds he created, and the many tools and designs that were Jack Lagree innovations. His passing was felt deeply by many — his family, friends, and the entire bobsled community. When Jack Lagree died, the town of Clinton (home to Churubusco, where he was born) lost one of its brightest native stars.

For part one of this story, click here.

Photo: famed bobsled driver Brent Rushlaw pilots a Jack Lagree sled in 1983, courtesy Bunk’s Place.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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