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Eco-marathon Americas at Sonoma Raceway prizes gas-stingy student-built cars

Like surgeons clustered around an operating table, students from California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo were hard at work amid the faint odor of gasoline wafting from the object at rest on a crude plywood table.

Their “patient,” laid bare with the top half of its 9-foot carbon fiber and Kevlar body removed, had no heartbeat, but they were prepping it — with hand tools and their engineering intuition — to come alive on a short asphalt track this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.

The entry from Cal Poly is one of the 99 cars hand-built by more than 1,200 students from high schools and colleges from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central and South America in the 12th running of the Shell Eco-marathon Americas.

The competition will unfold Saturday and Sunday over a .94-mile, five-turn course specially tailored for the Eco-marathon and using parts of the raceway’s famed road track that hosts NASCAR, IndyCar and drag racing events featuring supercharged monsters that emit roars over the bayland hills.

Don’t expect any of that from the Eco-marathon, a test of student ingenuity in building cars designed to go about 15 mph, a pace easily matched by a golf cart.

Marathon laurels aren’t won by speed, but rather the ability to squeeze the most miles out of a gallon of gasoline or the equivalent in kilowatts from vehicles running on batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.

The all-time record for Eco-marathon Americas is 3,587 mpg, which makes the 105 mpg from a Tesla Model S look fairly puny.

“We invest in the future, this really is about the future,” said Pam Rosen, general manager for Shell Eco-marathon Americas.

California’s future, should it meet Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal announced in January, would have 5 million zero-emission vehicles that burn no fossil fuel on the road by 2030.

In designing and building their cars, students get a “hands-on approach to engineering,” followed by a chance “to test their theories in a safe environment,” Rosen said. And some land jobs based in part on their Eco-marathon experience, she said.

Shell Oil Co., the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, a multi-national oil and gas company with revenue of $305 billion last year, has sponsored the Eco-marathon Americas since it started in 2007. Rosen declined to say how much Shell spends on the event, but it puts up the $52,500 in prizes that will go to 36 top-placing teams this weekend.

In one corner an airplane hangar-sized temporary building erected at the raceway by Shell, the 20-member Cal Poly team took pains to prepare their dark green car, sporting a bright red and yellow Shell icon.

Powering their creation is a 49 cubic centimeter, single-cylinder Yamaha gas engine that generates 2.5 horsepower and would ordinarily go on a scooter, said Will Sirski, the team manager.

“We’ve fiddled with it to make it perfect for our use,” he said, standing in a crowded workspace between two tables loaded with tools and laptops.

With the proper gearing, the $15,000 car could go 100 mpg, Sirski said, “but it would be terrifying.”

The ride would be brutal with no suspension on the low-slung, three-wheeled 100-pound car, the steering bar would shimmy and the front end might lift off the ground, he said.

Like all Eco-marathon entires, Cal Poly’s is intended to average 15 mph, maximizing mileage relies on a technique called “burning and coasting,” Sirski said.

The driver throttles up to 25 mph on flat or slightly downhill stretches, then cuts power and coasts down to about 10 mph on steeper downgrades.

There are no grinding gears or banging fenders in an Eco-marathon, but there is a certain amount of risk involved.

Enyi Liang, the petite driver of Cal Poly’s car, had a mishap in last year’s Eco-marathon, held on potholed city streets in downtown Chicago with a 90-degree turn the drivers nicknamed “Death Corner.”

Liang, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, said she turned to avoid contact with a passing car and rolled over in hers, coming to rest upside down, a bit shaken.

“I was hanging in the seatbelt, looking down,” she said. “It was fine.”

The car was OK and managed a fourth-place finish in its class, and Liang is back holding the handlebars again this year. There’s a U-turn on the raceway course that looks like it “could be challenging,” she said.

Cal Poly holds the distinction as a “legacy team,” having competed in every Eco-marathon Americas since it started 2007. It has placed first in its category once, come in second twice and never come in lower than 10th.

Cal Poly’s car is in the Eco-marathon’s prototype class of futuristic vehicles, built purely to reduce friction and maximize efficiency. Drivers lie on their backs, many of them tucked into a bobsled-like frame little wider than their bodies, peering between their feet through a curved plastic windshield.

They need little more than a five-point driver’s harness, a horn, mirrors and brakes, often operated by hand.

The other class, called urbanconcept, is for street-legal cars, relatively boxy with two upright seats and necessities such as lights, wipers, emergency brake and DOT-approved wheels. A fire extinguisher is mandatory on cars of both classes.

Granite Falls High School from Washington state brought one of each class, with Kelsey Green, 18, driving the urbanconcept model and her brother Orion, 16, handling the prototype.

In the open air paddocks at the raceway, the team was getting ready for practice runs that started Thursday.

“The tinkering never stops,” Kelsey Green said, as some teams nearby were still removing their cars from wooden shipping crates.

There are six other California teams participating: UC Berkeley, California State University Sacramento, UCLA, East Los Angeles College, Schurr High School in Montebello and Livingston High School in Merced County.

All 99 cars must pass rigorous technical checks to meet a host of specifications, such as weight, braking, mechanical and electrical design and driver visibility.

At one test station, volunteer inspector Dave McCagg counted out loud, “3, 2, 1 — exit,” and the driver of the University of Illinois’ battery-powered prototype popped open the top and scrambled to her feet in 6.48 seconds.

“Excellent, good job,” said McCagg, a Ford Motor Co. engineer who specializes in cast aluminum wheels. Drivers must bail out of their cars in 10 seconds, a standard required to respond to an emergency.

They must also wear helmets and fire-retardant gloves and racing suits, with no synthetic clothing beneath the suit.

Driver Dinaz Bamji, a senior at Illinois, stands 5 feet 5 inches and weighs 110 pounds, nearly as much as her car.

An agriculture major, Bamji said she was named to the team for her size, but also had a hand in building the car.

The competition runs from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and from 8 a.m. to noon Sunday, with the regional race for places in the world championship at 2:30 p.m.

Admission to the raceway is free, and officials say they have no idea how large a crowd to expect.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.