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Ronnie Polaneczky: West Philly students closer to $10M prize for alternative-fuel car

IF YOU WERE on tiny Hanson Street in West Philly on Tuesday, you would've heard a roar loud enough to shake the garage it came from.

IF YOU WERE on tiny Hanson Street in West Philly on Tuesday, you would've heard a roar loud enough to shake the garage it came from.

A nanosecond later came another roar - the cheers of West Philly High School's Hybrid X Team, because the Harley Davidson 1450 engine they'd placed inside their self-built hybrid car had successfully burst to life for the very first time.

"It was utterly amazing!" says Sowande Jay, a junior in the school's Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering, thrilled by the un-mufflered sound that ricocheted off the walls. "It was amazing to hear the end result, after working so hard to get the engine to run."

"Working so hard" barely describes the effort these incredible teenagers and their teachers have been expending since I wrote about them eight weeks ago. After school, weeknights and Saturdays, you'll find them in the Hanson Street garage, toiling madly to hit the next deadline in their dogged quest to nab the $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE.

And donors, moved by the Daily News tale of the little team that might, have contributed almost $26,000 toward the $80,000-to-$100,000 needed to keep West Philly in the game.

The biggest gift was a $10,000 check from the Detroit-based United Auto Workers, whose president, Ron Gettelfinger, contacted West Philly as soon as he read their story.

"The students are unbelievable," says Gettelfinger, who spent two hours with the team last month and was knocked out by their enthusiasm. "The future of the automotive industry is in this new technology, and they're out there on the cutting edge. We wanted to support them."

He has special praise for Simon Hauger, 40, the team's Pied Piper-esque founder who has a way of convincing skeptics that crazy goals are impossible only if you decide to wuss out.

"He's impressive - incredible," says Gettelfinger, awed.

And off his rocker, says Ann Cohen, a team mentor (along with teachers Ron Preiss and Jerry DiLossi).

"Simon gets these insane ideas in his head. We've stopped saying, 'We can't do that,' " she says, "because we always get it done. Secretly, it's why we like him."

Craziest is this X PRIZE thing, which requires entrants to create an affordable, alternative-energy car that gets 100 miles per gallon and can be mass-produced. They must also submit a business plan detailing where and how the car will be made and marketed.

The contest will award $5 million for the best four-door economy car; $2.5 million each will go to two winners in a two-seater category. West Philly submitted applications in both classes.

Initially, 111 hopefuls entered the contest. West Philly's Hybrid X Team (an after-school club) was the lone high-school entrant among international contestants, 21 of whom soon dropped out. Of the remaining 90 that submitted plans to X PRIZE judges early last year, only 43 were given the green-light, in October, to remain in the game.

Astoundingly West Philly was among them (besting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and is now going head-to-head against Cornell University, Tesla Motors and Tata Motors, to name a few heavyweights with access to massive resources and money.

Since my story appeared, two teams have dropped out of the race, perhaps daunted by the impossible task of building their cars, finalizing their business plans and submitting their applications for testing and evaluation over the summer.

Winners will be announced in October, but editors at Popular Mechanics, which evaluated the proposals, have already pegged West Philly among the top 10 contestants likely to win.

But first, the team has to hit a Jan. 31 deadline that requires them to submit their technical report and some performance stats on their cars, which are - ahem - still being built.

And, just to keep things exciting, the team is also preparing an auto for display during the Philadelphia International Auto Show, which opens Jan. 30 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The show is a fundraiser for Children's Hospital, so West Philly won't use their display to solicit donations, says Cohen.

Instead, she says, "It's an opportunity to share what we've been up to and where we're going. It also gives the students a chance to interact with the public. They've gotten very poised."

But poise won't pay the expense of the team's several required trips to Detroit this spring, where different legs of the competition will take place.

"We still need about $50,000," says Cohen, who is planning a March fundraiser. "We'll hit it. I don't know how we'll do it, but we will."

They always do.

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E-mail or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: Read Ronnie's blog at