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Battery-powered fun

Students get a charge out of building, racing electric cars at annual event
by: John Klicker, Daniel Allie of Centennial High School passes a competitor as he rounds a corner. Although electric cars travel at between 15 and 30 mph, the main objective is to complete as many laps possible in an hour’s timeframe and still have battery power left.

The parking lot at Mt. Hood Community College was filled with the sound of, well, silence, during the annual electric car competition sponsored by Ford Asset and Integrated Metals on Saturday, March 1.

Cars zipped around the curvy, rain-drenched course as teams from Centennial High School and other area schools competed in a race that tested the mettle - and metal - of teams.

'All of our cars are built out of aluminum to save weight,' said Aaron Stewart, 18, of the Centennial High team. 'It's a little bit of a struggle, but if you grab it right you can pick up our cars by yourself.'

The team built its three cars - some older than others - from scratch using aluminum tubes. They do all the design work, tube bending and welding. A new car is under construction.

While Stewart talked, his team members - in cars 12, 25 and 42 - whirred around the track, reaching speeds of up to 35 mph. Old car 25 has been in races for five years.

'There have been things changed on it many times,' Stewart said. 'We just do a lot of repair work on them to keep them on the road. Re-weld any welds that crack.'

Each car uses a 1.5-hp electric motor, 24-volt battery pack and 180 pounds of driver plus weights - so vehicle design is important. Some schools unfortunately use steel frames, he said.

But beyond weight and design, there are other competitive considerations. For hillier races, for example, they might use a larger wheel sprocket, or for wet conditions like today, they will reduce tire pressure for traction.

In electric car races, the winner is the one who makes the most laps in an hour. Far from simply going full throttle, there is a lot of strategy that goes into squeezing the most juice from batteries.

'The whole strategy is to take it kind of easy about the first half hour or 40 minutes,' said Stewart, who won the Mt. Hood race last year. 'And then when you have about 20 minutes left in the race you start driving a little harder, and then when you get down to about 10 minutes you just go full throttle the rest of the way.'

Not unlike their gas-powered cousins, electric cars also demand smart-track strategies when driving them: taking the best line around a track, cutting corners and conserving 'fuel.' But more than that, it takes having a feel for the car.

'It's not about just mashing around corners - it's all about finesse,' said Daniel Allie, 18, a Centennial senior who took third place in the race. 'You have to try and outthink the batteries.'

Allie was less than electrified at his finish, though.

'I went a little bit too hard into it a bit too soon, and then it just started dying out a little bit earlier than I would have liked,' he said. 'If I could've had maybe one or two more strong laps, I definitely would have been better off.'

Nonetheless, he was satisfied with the run.

'Things were a bit shaky from what I'm used to - we might have to work out some kinks (with the car),' Allie said. 'But overall I did pretty good, I was really happy with the way it was running.'

Spending an hour crammed into the go-cart-size car, in the cold and rain, left first-time racer Rob Sepich, 17, of Centennial as drained as his battery.

'It's a lot more strenuous than I thought, and you really have to be used to not being comfortable for a long time,' he said, his face wet and dirty. 'You have to jam your feet into the front of the car so you can fit, so my feet felt real weird when I got out.'

Centennial team member Michael Alwert, 17, also raced for the first time. 'My fingers are all numb; I can barely move them.'

Some racers fared worse than that. A student from Thurston High School in Springfield hurt his ankle after his car crashed head-on into a curb. A poorly welded steering rod broke, said schoolteacher Mark Brey.

'The particular part of the steering that failed was spot welded, not finish welded, and they didn't catch it,' Brey said. 'Steering components are pretty important.'

The competition is designed to give students hands-on experience in learning welding and other skills. It's also about winning, and the Centennial team is pretty competitive said team leader Mark Watts, Centennial's metal shop teacher.

'We usually take first - or third - we are pretty competitive, we are right up there,' said Watts, who has been leading the electric car team for more than 10 years.

'They actually build, design and then prove their designs; and as you see as you race, things break down, so now they have to go back to the drawing board to figure out what broke and what needs to be fixed,' Watts said. 'Hopefully they are the future engineers of America.'

Or at least great welders; Stewart eventually would like to become an underwater welder.

'Being on the team has given me a lot of experience welding, which I'm going to be doing as a career,' he said. 'I'm going to be going to Mt. Hood Community College doing the two-year associate's degree program for welding and machining.'