Student Teams Share Tools, Advice Off the Track During Eco-marathon

A race for fuel efficiency might be dog-eat-dog on the track, but student teams are willing to lend a helping hand back in the paddock.

Shell* Eco-marathon Americas gives more than 1,000 students the chance to showcase their science and engineering skills in Houston each year. (See related photos: “Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55.”)

The goal: Construct a vehicle in one of two categories—prototype or UrbanConcept—using one of six fuel types and test its energy efficiency in a race around Houston’s downtown park.

But the task is easier said than done, with student teams working into the night to fix sticky clutches, stalled engines, steering-wheel collapses, brake failures and tire blowouts before the next day’s run.

This race to pass inspection plays out each day in the George R. Brown Convention Center, where 126 student teams work out of paddocks, or workstations that hold their vehicles. More often than not, it’s a place to share tools and solve problems before earning a spot on the track.

“Clearly the teams are here to win, and they are really competitive,” said Niel Golightly, Shell Corp.’s vice president of external affairs. “But if there’s a team having a problem – lost a tool, missing a part or they can’t figure out a technical problem — you see teams help each other out.”

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Ruston High School’s gas-powered prototype races through the Houston streets Saturday. Photo courtesy Shell Eco-marathon.

Two Louisiana schools competing in different categories this year have paddocks on opposite ends of the convention center. Back home, they’re just a few blocks from each other.

Senior Ty Oakes said Ruston High School’s two prototype vehicles were built solely by the young students, but it’s nice having Louisiana Tech University engineers—and experienced Eco-marathon teams—so close. (Take the related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Cars and Fuel.”)

“There’s a definitely a sense of being in a different league than they are, but at the same time, we’re working alongside them,” Oakes said. “We’re building a car, too. We’re not just watching the pros; we’re all doing the same thing.”

Ruston High School started competing two years ago after hearing the success of Louisiana Tech, which showed the budding engineers the ropes of the competition.

The university used to hold mini-workshops for nearby teams to explain the race’s rules and procedures, said Heath Tims, faculty adviser and associate processor of mechanical engineering.

“One of the things we really stress is to set standards and do something attainable,” Tims said as his students fixed some unexpected problems with two UrbanConcept cars Saturday evening. “If they can get out there, that’s what matters.”

Ruston’s diesel-powered prototype made it just a couple of laps around the track Saturday when its tires blew out. After returning to their paddock, Oakes said students discovered a problem with the vehicle’s alignment.

Just next door, a Mexico City college team worked through a shipping snafu to get their hydrogen-powered prototype ready for the road.

When the much-needed tools failed to arrive, Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey student Maria Jose Sanchez said nearby teams offered up their own.

“People are so helpful here,” she said.

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains authority over content.