Eco-marathon Americas at Sonoma Raceway prizes gas-stingy student-built cars
Like surgeons clustered around an operating table, students from California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo were hard at work amid the faint odor of gasoline wafting from the object at rest on a crude plywood table.
Their “patient,” laid bare with the top half of its 9-foot carbon fiber and Kevlar body removed, had no heartbeat, but they were prepping it - with hand tools and their engineering intuition - to come alive on a short asphalt track this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.
The entry from Cal Poly is one of the 99 cars hand-built by more than 1,200 students from high schools and colleges from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central and South America in the 12th running of the Shell Eco-marathon Americas.
The competition will unfold Saturday and Sunday over a .94-mile, five-turn course specially tailored for the Eco-marathon and using parts of the raceway's famed road track that hosts NASCAR, IndyCar and drag racing events featuring supercharged monsters that emit roars over the bayland hills.
Don't expect any of that from the Eco-marathon, a test of student ingenuity in building cars designed to go about 15 mph, a pace easily matched by a golf cart.
Marathon laurels aren't won by speed, but rather the ability to squeeze the most miles out of a gallon of gasoline or the equivalent in kilowatts from vehicles running on batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.
The all-time record for Eco-marathon Americas is 3,587 mpg, which makes the 105 mpg from a Tesla Model S look fairly puny.
“We invest in the future, this really is about the future,” said Pam Rosen, general manager for Shell Eco-marathon Americas.
California's future, should it meet Gov. Jerry Brown's goal announced in January, would have 5 million zero-emission vehicles that burn no fossil fuel on the road by 2030.
In designing and building their cars, students get a “hands-on approach to engineering,” followed by a chance “to test their theories in a safe environment,” Rosen said. And some land jobs based in part on their Eco-marathon experience, she said.
Shell Oil Co., the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, a multi-national oil and gas company with revenue of $305 billion last year, has sponsored the Eco-marathon Americas since it started in 2007. Rosen declined to say how much Shell spends on the event, but it puts up the $52,500 in prizes that will go to 36 top-placing teams this weekend.
In one corner an airplane hangar-sized temporary building erected at the raceway by Shell, the 20-member Cal Poly team took pains to prepare their dark green car, sporting a bright red and yellow Shell icon.
Powering their creation is a 49 cubic centimeter, single-cylinder Yamaha gas engine that generates 2.5 horsepower and would ordinarily go on a scooter, said Will Sirski, the team manager.
“We've fiddled with it to make it perfect for our use,” he said, standing in a crowded workspace between two tables loaded with tools and laptops.
With the proper gearing, the $15,000 car could go 100 mpg, Sirski said, “but it would be terrifying.”
The ride would be brutal with no suspension on the low-slung, three-wheeled 100-pound car, the steering bar would shimmy and the front end might lift off the ground, he said.
Like all Eco-marathon entires, Cal Poly's is intended to average 15 mph, maximizing mileage relies on a technique called “burning and coasting,” Sirski said.
The driver throttles up to 25 mph on flat or slightly downhill stretches, then cuts power and coasts down to about 10 mph on steeper downgrades.
There are no grinding gears or banging fenders in an Eco-marathon, but there is a certain amount of risk involved.
Enyi Liang, the petite driver of Cal Poly's car, had a mishap in last year's Eco-marathon, held on potholed city streets in downtown Chicago with a 90-degree turn the drivers nicknamed “Death Corner.”
Liang, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, said she turned to avoid contact with a passing car and rolled over in hers, coming to rest upside down, a bit shaken.
“I was hanging in the seatbelt, looking down,” she said. “It was fine.”
The car was OK and managed a fourth-place finish in its class, and Liang is back holding the handlebars again this year. There's a U-turn on the raceway course that looks like it “could be challenging,” she said.
Cal Poly holds the distinction as a “legacy team,” having competed in every Eco-marathon Americas since it started 2007. It has placed first in its category once, come in second twice and never come in lower than 10th.