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A Movie-Like Ending at Eco-marathon

I guess it was important for us to enjoy the ENTIRE Shell Eco-marathon experience. With 10 minutes to go on the very last day of competition, our electric urban concept car fell from first to second place, beaten by a Dixie Cup’s worth of energy.  The story would be gut-wrenching if it had not been for the movie-like ending put together by the winning team from the Purdue University. (See also: “Purdue Solar Racing Seeks to Boost Sun Intensity“)

When our rookie team arrived at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on the first day of the event, we discovered our pit was next to the Purdue Solar Car Team. Their car was beautiful. Amazing even. It looked light, aerodynamic, and efficient. The intimidation factor was over-the-top. Judging from the display materials set up in their pit, the car came from an impressive lineage.  Our students started lowering their championship goals. “Second would be great!” one of the sophomores said as they pushed our car over to the inspection line. (See: “10 Things Learned on the Way to Eco-marathon“)

The second day of the Shell Eco-marathon experience brought a list of successes for the Saint Thomas Academy Experimental Vehicle Team. We passed the technical and safety inspections with our cars, we were invited to participate in a photo shoot for Shell, and we developed a relationship with our new friends from Purdue. The amazing thing about our neighbor from Indiana was that they never stopped working on their car. While we ate, they worked. When we slept, they worked. When we sat out in the sun, they worked. All day and night they worked. Even with the race looming, the team of college students took time to answer our questions and seemed genuinely interested in our projects and my students. (See related Purdue blog post: “Lighter and Sleeker for This Year’s Race“)

Actual competition started on Saturday and our urban concept car jumped out to an early lead. Watching my students work together as a team to prepare the car for each run and then coach the driver during the ten laps of the race made me proud to be part of our program. On each efficiency attempt the driver and his NASCAR-like pit crew squeezed better results from one-person vehicle. As the day drew to a close, the team from Purdue stopped working for the first time. They looked exhausted when they took their carbon fiber marvel over to the inspection area. We went to bed that night in first with a comfortable lead, knowing full well the Purdue team would be ready to go on the last day of competition.

After 10 months of work and many long hours, our team reported for the last day of competition at Shell Eco-marathon. Barring some surprise, it looked like only the untested car from Purdue could unseat us. With two race sessions planned for the day, we were pretty sure our standing atop the leader board was tenuous at best. Early in the morning members of the Purdue team pushed their car to the start line with a look of relief. We cheered for our paddock neighbor. The car went one lap and stopped. Ouch. It was then my students learned an important lesson. They watched the Boilermakers calmly push their car back to the pit and then diagnose and fix the problem. They did it with such professionalism that any potential employers would have offered them a job on the spot. My team of high school students learned what is meant to work hard and keep calm even in the face of adversity.

The last session of competition started under mostly cloudy skies. I won’t lie, with all of the gremlins that plagued the team from West Lafayette, I actually started to think we had a chance to win by default. As Purdue rushed to the start line with less than five minutes left in the last race session on the last race day, the team of young engineers looked anxious. The car left the starting line with all the smoothness that we expected from a well-crafted vehicle and continued like that for all ten of it’s perfectly run laps. I knew we were beat before the result was posted. The real victory for us was how close the final results really were. Purdue had beat us by less than a penny’s worth of electricity!

When the award ceremony was over and the giant checks had all been handed out, the two friendly rivals had a chance to reflect on the excitement of the day. The students from Purdue University could not have been more gracious winners, visiting with our students long after the convention center had emptied out. Congratulations Boilermakers, your team is a class act.