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Hoosiers Make a Strong Showing at Shell Eco-marathon 2012

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"George," the gas-powered Urban Concept vehicle built by Mater Dei High School students from Evansville, makes one of his last runs before retirement after five years of competitions. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

“We just keep at it, we don’t give up just because something doesn’t work,” said Collin Gruntman, 17, when asked why so many teams from Indiana compete in the Shell Eco-marathon every year in Houston, Texas.

Gruntman, a junior at Goshen High School in Goshen, Indiana, explained that his team’s fortunes had started looking up by Saturday afternoon. On Friday, the group’s car developed problems with the fuel injection system, so the team worked into the night to change it over to a carburetor.

“After that is was running all right, but then we busted a sprocket,” Gruntman’s teammate, Scot Huf, 15, said. The team was hard at work on the small, gas-powered vehicle in their pit stop inside the George R. Brown Convention Center.

This year, teams from all over the Americas are assembled March 29-April 1 in the “Petro Metro” of Houston to race their hand-built cars around a road course, which encircles the lush (and LEED-certified) Discovery Green downtown.

The drivers shoot for an average speed of 15 mpg, so it’s the most efficient use of fuel that wins, not who gets to the finish line first. Cars are fielded by high school and college teams, and compete in various divisions, including gasoline, diesel, ethanol, electric, and solar modes.

Shell Eco-marathon events for Europe and Asia will be held later this year in Rotterdam and Kuala Lumpur. At the Americas challenge, there are five teams from Brazil, two from Mexico, five from Canada, and 124 from the U.S. Of those, 15 hail from the great state of Indiana, which also happens to be this writer’s homestate.

Hoosier teams include Goshen, two teams from Sullivan High School in Sullivan, Indiana, Paoli High School, Warsaw Area Career Center, three teams from Wawasee High School in Syracuse, and four teams from Mater Dei High School in Evansville, including the returning champions.

At the collegiate level, Indiana teams include three groups from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and the Purdue Solar Racing Team, which operates the only solar-powered car ever to qualify for the event.

While they were prepping their gas Urban Concept (streetworthy) car — affectionately named George —  Mater Dei team members said they thought Indiana’s racing heritage might partially explain the local enthusiasm for the Eco-marathon.

The Indianapolis 500, billed as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, is one of the oldest and most popular motorsports events in the world. An estimated 400,000 people pack into Speedway every May to watch the 500-mile event, which has helped drive innovation in automotive technology for decades, from tires to fuels (Indy cars currently run pure methanol).

A number of the Eco-marathon entrants actually resemble Indy cars past and present, with their open-wheel designs, aerodynamic shapes and ultra low centers of gravity.

In the case of George, although he has won several titles in five years of Eco-marathon competitions, he is being retired after this year’s event. According to team member Craig Wilmes, Mater Dei is going to build an entirely new Urban Concept vehicle for next year, with a more streamlined shape.

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A Prototype vehicle from Mater Dei completes the road course around Houston's Discovery Green in Shell Eco-marathon 2012. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

Rich Auto History

In addition to the 500, Indiana also boasts a long tradition of auto manufacturing. It’s a little known fact, but Indianapolis once had more car makers than Detroit.

Innovations to come out of the Hoosier state include tilt steering, cruise control, and front-wheel drive. Makers included the storied Duesenberg, Studebaker, and the Stutz Bearcat.

Times and fashions change, factories close, and Michigan lured much of the auto industry north with cheaper taxes. But even today, Indiana hosts major manufacturing facilities by Toyota, Subaru, Honda and others.

Another reason why Indiana schools perform so well in international competitions is because they have a warm-up lap, thanks to a statewide competition held each April by the Indiana Mathematics, Science and Technology Education Alliance (IMSTEA). More than 50 high schools compete in the IMSTEA Super Mileage Challenge in Indianapolis, in stock and unlimited class divisions.  Each vehicle is powered by a 3.5 hp, horizontal shaft Briggs and Stratton engine.

Boilermaker Ingenuity

At the bustling Purdue Solar Racing pit at the Shell Eco-marathon, senior and chief engineer Brian Thompson gave a brief tour to spectators. The Purdue team is a highly oiled machine, with engineering students joined by business and marketing students, who lead fundraising, promotions, and communications.

The Purdue Solar Racing team conducts educational events for Indiana youth, complete with Legos, and makes an annual visit to the statehouse to advocate for clean transportation. The marketing students score lots of ink from media around the world, and they raise serious money from corporate sponsors.

As Thompson explained, Celeritas, the group’s Eco-marathon solar car, was built using $90,000 to $100,000 in materials, including carbon fiber and solar panels. “The only thing that is metal on it is the suspension,” he said. “Everything else is carbon fiber, including the chassis, and it’s lightweight and extremely strong.”

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Celeritas, the returning champion from Purdue Solar Racing. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

This year, the Purdue team added windshield wipers to Celeritas, to make it street legal. (The car is named after the Latin word for “speed of light,” the “c” in the equation e = mc squared.) Thompson said he had recently called the state department of motor vehicles to get a VIN number, although he had a hard time explaining the futuristic car over the phone.

Thompson said Celeritas has a top speed of 40 mph, based on the 50V power limited by Shell (he said the electric motor can take up to 160 V).  Other Purdue Solar Racing vehicles have reached speeds above 65 mph in cross-country contests.

Earlier this week, another team from Purdue called the EcoMakers was selected by GM to enter the EcoCAR 2 contest to develop a new eco-friendly model.

Thompson said the Celeritas is the only solar-powered car to yet meet all of the Eco-marathon Americas guidelines. “There’s another team here with a solar car, but it’s too heavy,” he said. “We’ve been helping them out.”

In fact, that spirit of cooperation pervades the Shell Eco-marathon. “The atmosphere is really friendly here,” said Thompson. “If you need to borrow something from another team, they help you out.”

Thompson is originally from Evansville, where he went to a rival high school to Mater Dei. He is a senior in mechanical engineering, and plans to keep working in the auto industry.

After he graduates, he is heading to Michigan to work for Chrysler.

There aren’t as many car companies in Indiana as there used to be, but there is still a lot of innovation.