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A Mighty Tunnel

Words: Megan Michelson
Photography: Nate Christenson/ Red Bull Content Pool
 

How one man built a wind tunnel in Utah that’s helping elite athletes fine tune their aerodynamics. 

When Olympic ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson wanted to test her body positioning to maximize her form when she’s flying through the air at 60 miles per hour, she headed to Ogden, Utah, where a specialized wind tunnel was built just for this purpose.

The tunnel itself is about 100 feet long, made from steel beams and wood. At one end, three massive fans, each measuring six feet in diameter, send a blast of air shooting through the tunnel at up to 70 miles per hour. Hendrickson used the tunnel—as well as a specialized harness that elevated her above the ground to simulate the act of flying—to make minor tweaks to her body positioning to help reduce drag, increase speed, and elongate her jumps. 

“Even moving a finger or angle of your hand can make a huge effect,” says Hendrickson, who spent a total of two hours training in the tunnel. “That was really cool to see that in the wind tunnel. My favorite part was actually jumping after I had had that feeling in the wind tunnel. I could feel my arms and I was more aware of where I wanted them in the air so it was more effective.”

The Utah tunnel isn’t just a training site for ski jumpers. Winter sports athletes from ski racers and aerialists to skeleton and luge athletes, as well as land speed racers—the drivers and motorcyclists going for speed records at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats—also frequent the wind tunnel. 

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“We can help people go faster,” says Layne Christensen, the owner and creator of the tunnel. “Anybody or anything that wants to go faster through the air can benefit by coming into the wind tunnel. We not only demonstrate where they are and what their aerodynamics are but we can show them what’s possible. We guarantee they will find improvements.”

Christensen was mostly retired five years ago when he hatched the idea to build Utah’s only wind tunnel. He’d been interested in human-powered land speed racing for years, but it was just a side passion. (For 30 years, Christensen has been tinkering at building a specialty bicycle to break the existing land speed record. He’s still at work on it.)

A Utah native, he’s been a serial entrepreneur his whole life. In high school, he started a custom sign shop. In his twenties, he moved to Hollywood and started a company that transported props for the movie industry (he also worked as an actor for about six months). He later worked in hotel management and started his own wireless internet company. When he turned 50 years old, he retired and moved to Italy for a year. 

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His retirement didn’t last long. When he got back to the U.S., he found himself chatting with a guy in a bike shop about how Lance Armstrong had once used a wind tunnel in a facility at Texas A&M’s Department of Aerospace Engineering to adjust his form so he could more efficiently cut through the air on his bicycle. 

“I could see the possibilities,” Christensen says. “I saw it as a business opportunity and also good for my passion for aerodynamics and speed. So I found a designer who came up with the plan. Then I began building.”

 

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 It took him two and a half years to construct the tunnel—which he built nearly entirely himself—and it opened for business in the spring of 2013. He called his new venture Darko Technologies.

“I put everything I had into the wind tunnel,” says Christensen, who’s now 61.

Inside the tunnel, athletes stand in the middle and their lift and drag numbers are projected onto the floor in front of them, so they can see how minor movements to their body impact their speed. Coaches can stand in a nearby control room, watching through a glass wall, and video cameras capture their motion to be analyzed later.

“When you get into the higher speeds, aerodynamics makes up about 90 percent of the whole equation,” Christensen says. “A lot of people don’t even realize how important aerodynamics can be. So I love showing them what we can do and helping them go faster.” 

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