Faster and FartherJune 1, 2013
Story by John Seasly
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
After school, the new members of the Jasper Wildcat Motorsports Club meet for the first time with the juniors, seniors and parents. The younger students stand back a ways and watch shyly as the older students confidently tinker with the two cars.
To the right is the formula car, its sleek gold exterior glinting under the overhead lights in the open space. With its arcing bullet shape and its wide tires, it looks like it would be at home on a racetrack.
To the left is the super mileage car, about half the size, with a transparent plastic shell over a driver’s seat too small for the taller, older students. This car, with only one wheel in the rear, like a tricycle in reverse, is meant for a different kind of racing.
Both cars were completely designed and built by the Jasper High School students. The formula car was built for speed, adhering to a strict set of rules. With far more freedom to improvise, the students built the super mileage car for distance, clocking in hundreds of miles per gallon.
This school year, the students — about 45 of them — will test their skills anew. Not only will they enhance their two existing cars, they will also start work on a new version of each. Another group will dedicate itself to finding funding, materials and sponsors.
Each Wednesday after school, the team will meet in the motorsports lab and in the nearby classroom of engineering and technology teacher Seth Sickbert, the team’s faculty adviser. The lab resembles a real garage, with all the tools needed to build and enhance a vehicle. The classroom, too, is equipped with Apple desktop computers, a 3-D printer, and a wind tunnel for testing aerodynamics.
Motivating many of the students is a passion for understanding the way things work.
In his spare time, junior Erich Hopf fixes up and sells motorcycles.
“I always got in trouble for taking stuff apart,” he says.
Sophomore Travis Wehr has made modifications to his four-wheeler and truck, and was drawn to the hands-on aspects of the motorsports team.
“I’ve always been kind of into engines and cars and trucks and tractors,” he says.
Over the year, the students will take the cars apart and put them back together. They will build new ones from scratch. They will tinker, and in tinkering, they will learn.
On this Wednesday, a group of students prepare the super mileage car for a test run in the high school parking lot. The car was designed for maximum fuel efficiency and was assembled from lightweight materials. It rests on three bicycle tires, and a chicken-wire-type mesh separates the front pair from the small space for the driver’s feet. A fire extinguisher is welded so that the driver can pull a handle, blasting foam onto the engine should it catch fire.
Senior Lee Knies pours a few cups of gas into the car’s small plastic tank.
“I don’t know how much we need when the thing gets 300-plus (miles per gallon),” he says.
The engine is ignited, and it burps and throttles to life, the sharp grating sound of metal against metal. As the vehicle gets going, the sound becomes uniform somewhere between a roar and a purr. The smell of fumes wafts outward.
The students turn off the car to address a new problem. From somewhere in the engine, gas is leaking.
“It almost looks like it’s leaking right where it goes in the (carburetor),” Lee says, pointing to a plastic piece. The students make incremental adjustments, start the engine, and repeat the process. Eventually they solve the problem. They take the car off its workbench and wheel it out to the parking lot.
Four students fan out to different corners of the empty lot, keeping watch for any approaching cars.
Freshman JohnPaul Luke carefully lowers himself into the driver’s seat, his slim frame fitting snugly in the narrow space, and nearly lies down to reduce drag and to reach the pedals. He starts the car and drives it around the lot in an ellipsis. Mostly, the car glides, as the driver accelerates in short bursts to maintain momentum. Travis keeps time, as the little car buzzes around the lot.
The team takes the super mileage car for a test run at Sullivan County Airport. With long stretches of smooth concrete, the airport is an ideal place to test the car.
A sophomore, unfamiliar with the car, gets behind the wheel. As he is circling into a turn, he accelerates too fast. One of the wheels hits a reflecting light on the runway, and the car crashes, denting the front end.
To the team’s relief, the damage to the car is mostly superficial. The plastic covering and two bars of the frame are bent out of shape.
“Most of this we were actually able to repair rather than replace,” Sickbert says. The car is running smoothly again soon afterward.
By October, the team has begun to design its new formula and super mileage cars. The students weld together the frame of the new formula car, and print miniature 3-D models of shells for the super mileage vehicle. They test the models in the technology classroom’s wind tunnel, and settle on a design that is more curved and less angular than their current car. Although the new super mileage car will not be finished in time for the April competition, the formula car will be ready to race by May.
The super mileage team brings its car to the Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis for the annual super mileage challenge. Twenty-six high schools from across Indiana enter 39 cars in the competition, in four classes. In the unlimited class, Jasper’s team competes against 16 other schools.
According to the rules, each vehicle must complete a run of 10 laps, or 6.25 miles, on the track.
The car can go no slower than 15 miles per hour. Jasper’s team is able to complete eight 25-minute runs. The three best runs are averaged for the final ranking.
“It was fun,” JohnPaul, one of three drivers, says after the competition. He adds that the car, with its clear plastic shell, created grueling temperatures in the afternoon sun.
The team performs fairly well, averaging about 315 miles per gallon and coming in sixth of the 17 schools. It is also awarded the sportsmanship award for its teamwork and respect.
May 3 and 4
The team takes both formula cars to the race in New Castle. Since there is little flexibility in the design of the formula cars, both look nearly identical, except for their paint jobs, the former with its gold sheen and the newer car painted jet black. As with the super mileage race, the top three speeds in each course are averaged for the final score.
Of the six cars competing in Jasper’s bracket, the black and gold cars clock the fastest speeds and the top honors. On the road course, the black car finishes first with a time of 36.53 seconds, beating all competitors by more than a second. On the oval course, three drivers each earn the fastest time of exactly 18.09 seconds, nearly two seconds faster than any other car. The formula cars reach speeds upward of 50 miles per hour.
With all the races completed and the school year coming to a close, the team meets for the final time of the year. Besides making some minor adjustments to the cars, the students spend the afternoon throwing a football, playing cornhole and hanging out.
The graduating seniors will be starting college soon and leaving the high school behind. Some will pursue degrees in engineering, bolstered by their experience with motorsports.
The younger students have gone through their own transformation. No longer the shy newcomers, they have become proficient and adept at handling the cars. They will lead the team next year, tinkering with these cars and assembling new ones.
This is the primary objective of motorsports. The competitions gave the team a time frame and a set of goals, but winning was always secondary. First and foremost is the idea that students can learn by doing, and then see their work put into action on the track.
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