SAC Motorsport placed third and won $1,500 in the Shell Eco-Marathon Americas April 27-30.
By James Dusek
DETROIT — The morning of April 29, in the frigid air, engineering sophomore Dominic Ochoa lowered the microphone of his Bluetooth headset to his mouth. Across the street, he watched his team members push the hydrogen-powered race car they’d spent the past two years building to the starting line.
“How do you feel?” Ochoa asked over the headset. “Nervous? Good.”
They’re the same words his father used to tell him before soccer games. If you’re nervous, he’d say, it means you care.
The car started up and raced down the long stretch of road to the applause of advisers and team members.
The driver, engineering sophomore Sohyun Kwag, glided through the stretches and turns of the Detroit streets with grace. Held down by a five-part seatbelt and wrapped in a black fire-resistant jumpsuit, Kwag was finally competing in the car she’d toiled over as a mechanical team member.
It wasn’t easy to get here. The team started designing the car nearly two years ago. From start to finish, it was made entirely by students; design, purchasing and fabrication have all been their decisions. There’s no class to teach you how to build a hydrogen fuel cell car from scratch.
And it’s all been for this. The car is named “Noventa” for the Spanish word for 90, in honor of the year the project began, 2015, being the 90th anniversary of this college. Noventa was one of six cars to enter in the hydrogen prototype category of Shell Eco-marathon Americas April 27-30 in Detroit.
The competition is about fuel efficiency, not speed. Cars fueled by battery, hydrogen and combustion engines compete to go the farthest on the least amount of fuel. Hydrogen prototype is by far the most difficult and expensive of the categories.
An attempt, or “heat,” in the marathon consists of 10 laps around a 0.6-mile track of blocked-off Detroit streets in front of the Cobo Center.
Ochoa’s face remained straight for nearly the entire heat. When Kwag was out of sight, he’d stare off into the Detroit skyline, listening to the sounds of the Bluetooth headset, as if trying to will himself into seeing through Noventa’s cockpit.
Behind him, adviser Klaus Bartels, math, architecture, physics and engineering adjunct, waved a Texas flag in the cold wind, mirroring a decal of the flag on the front left of the car’s cockpit.
The result of thousands of hours, dollars, problems and solutions, Noventa was finally where it belonged.
Juli0 Banda, electrical lead and engineering sophomore:
It takes a certain type of person to sacrifice their evenings, weekends and holidays to work on a project like Noventa. The team worked through the winter and spring breaks, each dedicating hundreds of hours to getting the car to Detroit. Something about the car makes people want to give up everything for it.
Everyone falls in love with Noventa for his or her own reasons, Ochoa said. Some members of SAC Motorsport are drawn to the car because they’re intrigued by the challenge of building a car from scratch. Others said they’re drawn to it for the learning experience or the addition to a résumé.
For the past eight months, mechanical team member and general sciences graduate Isaac Garcia has approached the project as a series of little puzzles. He’s always working through a new puzzle — as soon as he solves something, he seeks out a new question to make him scratch his head. Garcia, like much of SAC Motorsport, gravitated to the car because it never stopped giving him something to think about. To Garcia, solving Noventa’s little puzzles is about more than building a car.
“There’s something about doing the puzzle that teaches you about yourself,” Garcia said, surrounded by the whirring of power tools in the team’s “paddock,” where they work on the car. “There’s something about going through the process and completing the puzzle that’s almost like there was this fog there before, that now is cleared. It’s almost like, in a sense, you’re solving yourself when you solve the puzzle.”
Isaac Garcia, mechanical team member and general sciences graduate:
Noventa doesn’t look like many of the cars at the marathon. The car is about waist-high, 7 feet long and barely wider than Kwag’s shoulders. It’s boxy and heavy with hard, straight edges. Future teams will likely rebuild the shell to be lighter, sleeker and more aerodynamic like many of the other cars at the competition.
In an interview in March, Ochoa said his motivation comes not necessarily from the education or résumé-boosting opportunities, but from the joy of making progress.
“More than anything, we find joy in it,” he said. “There’s enjoyment to be had in seeing a creation — something you thought of, something you formed in your mind — to come to reality, come to fruition, be tangible.”
Team members are drawn to more than just the car, though. Motorsport is a home and a family for its members. Though Noventa might be what pulls the students together, friendship is what keeps them there. SAC Motorsport is a group of outsiders, said computer science sophomore Amisadai Trinidad, the team’s public relations manager. They strive on making people feel welcome, regardless of their experience level or major.
“It’s hard to make friends in college,” Trinidad said. “It’s scary to go somewhere new and just be yourself. That’s why organizations like this exist. Just to make yourself known and be like, ‘Hey, this is me. This is how I am. Can we be friends?’”
Eben Pfeil, engineering graduate and mechanical lead, said the team had become a family. They eat together and work through professional, academic and personal problems together.
“I would truly bet money — good money — that every single person on this team will do what they want to do,” Richard King, engineering sophomore, mechanical team member and pit crew, said.
“At the end of the day, if you’re not treating each other like family, you’re not doing it right. And I’ve treated every single person here as best as I can, and the fact that I finally am able to have considered people friends with the same interests as I have is unbelievable. It’s amazing.”
Friendships like the ones within SAC Motorsport become particularly important in times of trouble. In the face of failure, teammates are there to comfort and help one another.
“We know that sometimes, we’re going to crash and burn,” Trinidad said. “But in the end, we’re there for each other.”
And that weekend, that ability to face failure was put to the test.
Before a car can race in the marathon, it undergoes a rigorous inspection process. Cars are evaluated in 10 aspects such as turning radius and the time it takes for the driver to exit the car in case of an emergency. For a brand-new car like Noventa, passing all 10 of the inspection categories isn’t an easy task.
No one passes inspection all at once. They go, get feedback on aspects of the car they need to fix, and head back to their work area — called a “paddock” — to fix the problems before trying again. Some teams never escape this cycle.
The hardest part of the process — overall design, technical and hydrogen inspections — consists of the car sitting in a white square painted on the floor of
the Cobo Center as an inspector walks around it, checking items off a 150-item checklist. King said inspectors ruthlessly criticize every aspect of the car, and if a team made any decisions they can’t defend, they don’t pass.
After the team’s first design inspection April 27, they got back to work immediately so they could be ready when inspection opened back up the next morning. As the team pushed Noventa out of the inspection area and back toward the paddock, King smiled at the car.
“I love that car,” he said quietly.
“It may not be as light as the other cars, and at the end of the day, it may not be efficient, but I see the way some of these people engineered it, and it makes me happy that I did what I did.”
King only started working on the car this semester, but he fit into the team quickly. He built race cars for speed in high school, and immediately fell in love with Noventa. He’s already put hundreds of hours into the steering and breaking systems.
“I’ve never regretted a second of it,” he said.
The next day, the team returned to inspection twice more. The final stage of inspection was the hydrogen system, which was examined by The Linde Group, who supplied the hydrogen for the competition.
“Congratulations,” Scott Wagner, Linde hydrogen production supervisor, said after a long silence. “You’ve passed inspection.”
Cheers, applause, hugs. Ochoa collapsed supine on the concrete floor. Irene Salazar, engineering sophomore, electrical lead and driver began to cry and hugged Julio Banda, engineering sophomore and electrical lead, tightly. More than the actual race, passing inspection symbolized success for the team. For two years, it’s all been for this. The car they conceived and built, the car that until five months ago only existed in the minds of these students, was ready to race.
Kwag completed the 10 laps of the car’s first heat and glided into the finish area. The team ran back around the blocked-off streets to see her.
“We were able to get this car moving,” Salazar said as they raced to Kwag. “The electrical system, I’ve never accomplished anything that great before. I’m just happy that I was able to help do that.”
Irene Salazar, electrical lead and engineering sophomore:
There were certain windows of time when teams were allowed to compete. Within those hours, a car could make up to six attempts if it was able to pass an inspection each time and get on the track before the window of time closed. The best of a car’s runs would be counted as their final efficiency. After the car’s first heat, the team needed to tighten the spokes of the rear wheel and replace the front tires in time to compete in the last window of the day that evening.
As soon as the line opened at 6 p.m., Motorsport was ready to go. There wasn’t anything wrong with the first run, Ochoa said, but the more chances they had to improve their score, the better.
This might be their last chance, the team members said to each other. There’d be more windows of time to compete tomorrow, but the cold was rumored to turn into rain the next day, and if it did, hydrogen prototype cars would not be able to compete.
The second heat seemed just as smooth as the first. At the end of the track, there was a sharp turn that led straight into a steep incline. If a car drove into the turn too fast, it would flip over or collide with the barriers of the track; too slow and it wouldn’t have the momentum to ascend the hill. Car after car failed the track’s final challenge. During Motorsport’s second heat, five cars crashed or stalled out on the stretch.
Kwag, however, took the area with ease, smoothly passing the failing cars. King credits this in equal parts to driver discipline and car design. The team had thoroughly tested the car and trained the drivers around this college’s campus before the competition.
When Kwag finished her 10th lap, the team hustled back to the starting area, just like before. Salazar buzzed with excitement as she detailed all the aspects of the car she was looking forward to improving over the next year.
“It’s just the start of a new beginning,” she said with a smile.
The team members emerged from the tent at the finish line looking somber. They brought bad news: The heat had gone six seconds over the maximum time limit of 24 minutes. The attempt was disqualified, and the team didn’t have time to compete again that day. If rain came the next day, Motorsport would go home with only one valid heat.
“Sally (Kwag) was keeping a really good pace for her lap times,” Ochoa said. “I thought she had more cushion than she actually had, so I told her to slow down on her sixth and seventh laps.”
Ochoa said though the longer lap times were partially due to other drivers disobeying rules and causing congestion, he ultimately blamed himself for the disqualified run.
“I was the one who made the call, so it was a little frustrating,” he said.
Trinidad said the team never expected that kind of failure — something so small, so barely outside of their grasp.
“It’s like getting in a fight with a friend,” he said. “You don’t know how it happened; you start questioning everything, wanting to know answers.”
The students went to their hotel rooms that night unsure of whether the failure would mark the end of their story.
Amisadai Trinidad, SAC Motorsport PR manager and computer science sophomore:
The next morning — the final day — the team was in line to compete before the track opened. Though rain would come later that afternoon, predictions of morning rain proved incorrect, so the team would have time for one more race.
While waiting, Eben Pfeil, mechanical lead, adjusted the tension of the spokes of the rear wheel. He tapped the spokes with a plastic pen in between sleight adjustments, listening for a similar tone between all of them, signifying equal tension. Loose spokes can lead to “catastrophic failure,” he said.
Salazar drove in the third heat instead of Kwag. Ochoa, wanting to avoid a repeat from the previous day, had a new strategy: “We’re just going to let her fly.”
There were a lot of cars on the track that morning, and as a result, Salazar’s first few laps were far over the ideal time. If she kept that pace, the run would end far over the time limit.
“You need to pick it up,” Ochoa said over the headset.
“She needs to go a lot faster,” King repeated anxiously.
SAC Motorsport wasn’t going to go home on another disqualification.
As Salazar passed into her final lap with less than four minutes remaining, Ochoa told her once more over the headset, “I need you to let it fly. Yeah, floor it!”
She made it. To the cheers and chants of the team, Salazar completed her 10th lap and exited the track. With another valid run completed, the team was satisfied. The competition was over. All that was left to do was pack up the paddock and attend the awards ceremony that night, where one last victory awaited them.
Motorsport’s best valid attempt was their first, with a fuel efficiency of 106 kilometers per cubic meter of hydrogen, or about 250 miles per gallon. Out of the six hydrogen prototype teams that entered the competition, only three made it through the meticulous inspection process and completed a valid run: Wheat Ridge High School from Wheat Ridge, Colo.; University of Alberta from Edmonton, Alberta; and SAC Motorsport.
Motorsport placed third out of the three valid competitors, earning them $1,500, which will go toward improving the car for next year’s competition. Salazar, Banda and a handful of current members will remain at this college, but the majority will transfer to universities over the summer.
SAC Motorsport is all about moving forward. Though much of the group is moving on, new generations of Motorsport will pick up where the pioneers left off. They’ve built the groundwork for the project and proven its viability. Ochoa said those future teams are what matter the most.