Green Grand Prix and other competitions

This school year I’ve been spending two days a week at West Philadelphia High School’s Auto Academy working with the students and teachers who make up the EVX Team.  I started the team 13 years ago as an after-school program to make good space for teachers and students to do hands-on work solving real problems.  It began with a science fair project and in a few years we were designing and building hybrid and electric vehicles.

Each year we look for a competition as a culminating event to showcase the students’ work.  The vehicle the students are building this year is an all-electric version of the Edison2’s Very Light Car (Edison2 recently won the X Prize and commissioned their first chassis to us).  Because I’ve scaled back to two days a week and our funding is limited this year, we realized that the Electric Very Light Car would not be road ready by the end of the school year.  So the students decided to enter the idea of this car into the Spirit of Innovation Awards – they made it to the finals and are traveling to California at the end of April.  You can vote for their idea here.

The team also wanted to find an event where they could showcase one of the cars we built for the X Prize.  We decided to enter the GT (our biodiesel sports car) in the Green Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International Speedway.  We left for the Glen Thursday right after school and arrived at the hotel around 11PM.  At 7AM Friday morning we were on the track going through technical inspection and weighing our vehicle.  The event drew 45 competitors – from the Chevy Volt and GM’s fuel cell SUV to homemade three-wheelers powered by industrial lawnmower engines and everything in between.   The competitors were as interesting as their cars and it was a wonderful opportunity for our students to learn about the variety of technologies represented there as well as show-off what they had built. Three teams from the X Prize were there, including Cornell University.

At 9:30 we lined up on the starting line and took off.  Now this was not a race of speed, but fuel-economy.  To win the competition, your car needed to average 45 mph and have the best fuel-economy.

For the past month the team had tinkered with the GT getting it ready for the competition.  It was the most relaxed we had ever been getting ready for a competition.  It seemed unlikely that our car could win so our goal was to have fun and give the students an opportunity to show off their cool car.  In the extreme haste of the X Prize, we had cut lots of corners.  Thursday morning (the day we left), we smoothed out the last corner discovering one of the major reasons why the car had not achieve the fuel economy we needed for the X Prize.  The GT was running better than it ever had just in time for the race.

On the track, we quickly realized that this race was designed for the GT. I was able to drive the entire course at 45 mph in 6th gear.  At this speed the engine was barely above idle.  The car handles so well that I never had to hit the brakes, not even on the sharpest corner that leads to a small hill.  And while other cars had to really hit the gas (or propane or electric) to make it up the hill, we didn’t.  The torque of our larger engine allowed us to lumber up the hill.   Ten minutes into this two-hour race, I turned to Ron who was keeping lap times and count, and jokingly told him that we might accidentally win this race.

Three hours later we were invited to the winners-circle.  The Chevy Volt had won the 50 mile race and West Philly had won the 100 mile.  Our car averaged over 100 mpg – not bad for an after-school program.