Innovators test limits of automobile energy efficiency at Sonoma Raceway

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Carbon fiber, chains, glass, aluminum, hockey sticks.

These are just some of the materials used by students from schools across the U.S. and the globe to build prototype race cars during the 2018 Shell Eco Marathon Americas at the Sonoma Raceway.

Over three days in April, students competed to see who can go the furthest distance on the least amount of energy. Teams compete in energy categories and vehicle classes like fighters matching up a in a weight class according to Pamela Rosen, general manager of the event for Shell.

Rosen said students choose to design either a prototype vehicle with fewer restrictions or an urban concept car with standard features like windshield wipers that could theoretically be allowed on public roads.

Teams have the choice of energy sources and choose between internal-combustion engines powered by gas, diesel, ethanol or biofuels, or an electric power source like hydrogen fuel cell or battery electric.

Parker Reynolds, a senior studying mechanical engineering at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, was standing by his team’s bullet-shaped internal-combustion engine prototype in the raceway’s cavernous staging area, making some final tweaks while they waited for the drizzly day to clear.

“The prototype category allows us to bend the rules a little bit,” he said, noting the car’s three wheels and aerodynamic design that requires the driver, sophomore Madeline Rossitto, to almost lay down while driving.

The interior of the prototype is all about converting chemical to heat energy and compression ratios, to hear Reynolds talk about it. But once the top hatch is locked into place, the business side of the competition comes into focus.

Plastered on the side of the vehicle are logos for companies like Altair and HP, sponsors whose money has made many of these concept conveyances possible.

“We don’t charge the students to enter the competition, but we also don’t fund the build of their cars,” Rosen said. “So the students have to go out there and get sponsors, unless the school’s putting some seed money towards a car.”

She noted Shell did provide a stipend for travel and allowed students to camp at the raceway, but business acumen was as crucial to winning one of the competition’s categories as engineering know how.

Rosen said the Cal Poly team had worked with someone from the business school there to fund raise, which led to a full time internship for that student. “Any successful team, they actually run it like a small business,” Rosen said.

From a business perspective, the racetrack benefits from the event as well according to Steve Page, president and general manager of Sonoma Raceway.

“For people who are not necessarily motor racing fans or don’t interact with the raceway for the traditional uses, coming out and enjoying this event, seeing what’s happening and being inspired by all these young kids that are so smart and so energetic, It’s an opportunity to introduce a new population to that what goes on here.”

The competition does not stop in Sonoma County, however.

Six teams will go on to compete at the Shell Driver’s World Championship in London. The top three teams from that competition go on to spend a week at the Maranello Ferrari facility in Italy, learning from engineers and other experts on and off the famed track.

While Europe is far afield from Sonoma County, that did not stop a team from Santa Rosa High school from working to build a car to enter into the competition. While they fell short this year, senior Julia Pastis, who will be attending University of California, Berkeley, next year, said the experience was invaluable.

“It was a great experience to be able to experience some of the technology that we might even work on once we graduate from college,” said Pastis, who hopes to come back to the competition with Berkeley once in college, said.

“We got to the point where the body work was nearly done,” Pastis said of her team’s effort. “The biggest issue for us was brakes and steering, which are both important for cars. Our driver didn’t want to drive it without steering and brakes.”

Click here see the full results from the competition.

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