JEFF RICHGELS | 11thframe.com
The biggest source of inequity in bowling isn’t lane conditions or ball technology or anything else most bowlers might think of.
It’s lane topography, a relatively unpublicized factor that only recently started being recognized for its significant impact as it was studied thoroughly.
Extensive research by Kegel and Lou Trunk’s Bowling Installations has proven the significance of flatness, or lack thereof, of bowling lanes.
When it was demonstrated to Pete Weber, he memorably said, “I owe a lot of lane men an apology,” though that demonstration and statement haven’t gotten near the publicity they deserve.
This article and the accompanying article on one center’s experience with fixing its topography aim to change that, and hopefully spread the word about this crucial issue and prompt change for the better in the sport and industry.
Topography is why lanes in a center oiled by a computerized lane machine that distributes oil precisely in millionths of an inch can play several boards different.
It’s why the same lane pattern can be soft and high scoring in one center and difficult and low scoring in another center, even though all other factors are the same.
It’s why a small move of perhaps 2-and-1 can result in a huge difference at the pins despite the player making a good shot.
“It’s the most fascinating topic in bowling I’ve ever studied,” Kegel technician Ted Thompson said, “because it answers all the questions.”
Thompson remembers a prominent tournament he was attending at a center that had had its topography “mapped” — Kegel calls its machine that measures topography by the thousandths of an inch the “lane mapper” — but the problems not fixed.
As two PBA stars with numerous titles moved to a pair, Thompson predicted that they would leave a 2-at best in their first shots on one of the lanes because he knew its topography. The first star missed the headpin to the right on his first shot. The second star saw this … and did the same thing. They eventually made significant adjustments to get the ball to the pocket on that lane.
The lanes had been oiled exactly the same by a computerized lane machine; the difference was topography.
Anyone who might have trouble believing that story or the evidence Kegel and Trunk have gathered should watch the stunning videos here of Weber, here of Norm Duke andhere of Rhino Page. Actually, everyone reading this story should watch the three short videos.
The PBA Tour stars made virtually identical shots (measured by CATS with data embedded in the videos) on lanes oiled the same, but with maximum legal topography differences in opposite directions. They got lined up on one lane and struck and then rolled essentially the same shot on the other and got huge differences in ball reaction. (Kegel has lanes at its facility that can be adjusted topographically and the lanes in the demonstration were adjusted from flat to a legal combination of crosstilts and rapid but legal crown/depression changes of 40 thousandths maximum along the lines the pros were playing. Keep in mind that many lanes far exceed the maximum.)
For the right-handed Weber and Duke the ball appeared to be struggling up a hill on their second shots, with Weber taking three off the right and Duke hitting the 3-6, while the left-handed Page’s ball had the opposite reaction and crossed over.
Weber’s ball was impacted more than Duke’s because of his lighter weight (15 vs. 16 pounds) and more side rotation, Thompson said.
For the technically inclined, Kegel and Trunk knew the approximate 10-board area that the pros would play based on the patternfor that particular test, so Kegel and Trunk put a legal .04-inch (40-thousandths crown in those boards on one lane and .04-inch depression on the other in that area where their balls would be rolling. So from the crown/depression the ball would "feel" a slope-per-board of 4 (.04-inch over 10 boards) on one lane and -4 on the other. They added a crosstilt of .039-inch (legal additional slope-per-board of 1) in the same direction. This made the balls feel a slope of 5 on one lane and -5 on the other — a difference of 10.
A slope of "1" over 60 feet produces a change at the pins of 1.2 inches, so a slope difference of 10 over 60 feet produces 12 inches of change — just as Kegel and Trunk expected.
If you have trouble understanding some of the terms, think of crowns as mountains and depressions as valleys, and crosstilts as the way a flat piece of wood would be angled higher on one side to lower on another.
The key metric is slope-per-board, as having a big crown or depression in one part of lane will have a dramatic effect on the ball in that area and yield a large slope-per-board reading, whereas a gradual tilt across a lane won’t have as dramatic an effect or yield as big a reading.
In the real world, a ball only is impacted by the boards it travels on so if there is a big crown or depression between 5- and 10-board in the first 20 feet of the lane on the right side and a right-hander is playing a deep inside line, shots won’t be impacted. But if that player is trying to play somewhere right of 10-board, the impact will be dramatic as the player runs into the crown.
“That's why you can make a little move on a lane and get a HUGE logic-defying change,” Trunk said. “Your ball didn't hit the big slope boards in shot one, but did in shot two.”
Think about that the next time you see a pro on TV make a small adjustment only to see a big change in ball reaction — rather than a wet or dry spot, it’s more likely the shot hit a crown (producing push) or depression (producing spark), Trunk said.
The good news is that topographical issues in lanes can be fixed, and once fixed they are staying fixed. The bad news is that the cost runs hundreds of dollars per lane, although one Iowa center that had its lanes leveled last summer said it was worth every penny in this accompanying story. The center had more consistent conditions and higher scores in its leagues, and greater equity in conditions for the tournaments it hosts.
“It's about bringing back the skill of the player as the focus, and limiting the ‘luck of the draw’ as a major factor,” said Trunk, who also has been the stand-by service manager for the United States Bowling Congress Open and Women's Championships since 1987 and a QubicaAMF bowling equipment installation specialist since 1977. “And it's about giving ALL styles a chance rather than the current situation, which gives the advantage to the power players (explained later in this story).
“It is commonplace today in an event that changes lanes each game to catch a pair way different (topography-wise) than the previous pair. A player that catches pairs that are alike keeps on striking, and the guy catching the different pair has to line-up all over again. HUGE swings in pinfall can result.
“Further, a team in an event where players remain on one pair that catches a pair that are nearly identical has a big advantage over a team that has to play the odd lane different from the even due to topography issues.” How has something so important been so unknown?
Like many things in bowling, technology outpaced the rules, Thompson and Trunk say.
“I would say the majority of people in bowling have no clue about it for the simple reason that we had rules that prevented topography from being such a random influential aspect of the game like it is today,” Thompson said, referring to the old American Bowling Congress (now USBC) rule requiring centers to resurface their wood lanes every year.
“The whole point of the annual resurfacing rule was to make it so this lane played similar to that lane and this center played similar to that center no matter where you were in the country.”
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