A final test of mind, spirit and car
At Tour de Sol, West Philly team defends title
West Philadelphia High School's team at the Tour de Sol car competition had jury-rigged a steel-tube and Plexiglas roof to its powerful biodiesel coupe, but it couldn't completely protect coach Simon Hauger and 11th grader Joseph Pak from the brutal elements.
Water from a driving rain had seeped in along with the tension. Could the team meet its goal of winning the prestigious race for the second straight year?
The two had been driving for hours Friday in the competition's most demanding event - a 200-mile course designed to measure fuel efficiency and vehicle emissions. The first half, from Saratoga Springs to Cooperstown, had been sun-filled fun on winding scenic roads.
The return, on the highway, was miserable.
Hauger and Pak were soaked. Their biodiesel-powered sports car had no heating system. The low roofline put a crick in Hauger's neck, and as darkness fell, his and Pak's limbs grew numb from the cold.
To earn the highest efficiency score, they plodded along at 45 m.p.h. while irritated drivers whizzed by, spraying road slurry onto their windshield.
They had left Saratoga Springs at just past two. It was nearly 8:30 p.m. when they returned.
Hauger's assessment of the drive: "Awful. "
Pak said it was uncomfortable, but "I've been through a lot worse . . . I wanted to finish the event so we could win. "
Of the 60 or so Tour de Sol entrants, West Philadelphia was directly competing with only four others, all in the powerful "prototype alternative fuel and hybrids" division. But the team aimed to rack up the most points overall as well - as it had done last year.
If the team won a second Tour de Sol victory, there'd likely be scholarships and well-paying jobs in the auto industry for the students, and badly needed grants or sponsorships for the city school's automotive academy.
Between Wednesday and Friday, the team's ranking had never dropped beyond third, and it had dominated the driving event. Still, the point spread was narrow. And this year, West Philly was at a disadvantage.
"Now 50 percent of the score is based on fuel economy, emissions; last year it was more like 40 percent," said Nancy Hazard, Tour de Sol director. It would be difficult, she said, for their "muscle car" to win.
With each challenge, though, the team had improvised ways to stay in the running.
On Day 1, Wednesday, the team got off to a shaky start with the safety inspection - a scoring event. But their car, a kit-built machine called the Attack, quickly began living up to its name.
Fitted with a 1.9-liter Volkswagen turbo diesel engine, the Attack set blistering times in acceleration, stopping distance, and a short slalom. Tension built for the day's final contest, the hill climb.
Slower vehicles, including those powered by the sun or by electric batteries, ambled silently or whirred up the hill first. Then, it was the bigger, faster and noisier cars' turn.
A 1976 Austin Mini sponsored by Greasecar VegetableFuel Systems of Easthampton, Mass., blatted up the hill at a respectable pace.
Moritz, a biodiesel Volkswagen Jetta, was faster: 44 m.p.h.
Businessman Carl Vogel's Vogelbilt Ford F-250 pickup thundered past at 55 m.p.h.
Western Washington University, a top car-design school, had returned to the Tour de Sol with Viking 32, a technology-stuffed hybrid electric and natural-gas car, like something out of The Jetsons. This was the team Hauger and his students most feared and respected.
With a UFO-like whooshing noise, the blue Western Washington car accelerated swiftly up the curving hill, stunning spectators.
Then Hauger pulled up to the starting line and gunned the engine of West Philly's Attack. When an official gave the signal, he took off, screeching the tires and rowing quickly through gear shifts.
The Attack hugged the pavement as it shot by at more than 60 m.p.h.
Western Washington went again, clocking in at 10.22 seconds – excellent, but not enough to beat West Philly's 10.11.
Hauger, sounding a bit winded, said, "A tenth of a second; not bad. "
That night, West Philadelphia assistant coach Clayton Kinsler warned the 10-student team to beware of hubris and to remain classy, continuing to help other teams. "You have to ride this out modestly," Kinsler said.
After such a high-adrenaline day, everyone was looking forward to an easy 43-mile drive on Thursday. Simply finishing meant a perfect score.
At an industrial park, Tour participants set up for a car show and lunch. A group of West Philly students had gathered around the car of their rival, Western Washington.
West Philly senior Tyson Drummond asked if they had tested their car in a wind tunnel.
Yes, and they had even built their own wind tunnel.
Matt Joplin, a 23-year-old engineering student at Western Washington, explained how his team was working with a dairy farm to produce the biomethane gas that powers the futuristic-looking car.
Cow dung, when placed in a large container called a digester, he said, emits gases that can be captured and chemically "scrubbed" to produce natural gas, also known as methane.
"We're able to get to 93 percent methane," Joplin said proudly.
Joplin's teammate Ryan Cruse added, with a mischievous grin, that the exhaust doesn't smell like cow dung.
That prompted the West Philly students to joke about capturing their own gases and marketing them as alternative fuels.
After pizza and wings at their motel, Hauger that night briefed his young charges on the next day's assignment, the 200-mile run. They'd have to do a good job of attaching the Plexiglas top to their open-air car. Navigation had to be flawless. And conserving fuel would challenge the lead-footed Hauger.
"The idea is to drive as slowly as possible," Hauger would say. "Without losing your sanity. "
Fatigue, cold, damp, and inconsiderate drivers all threatened Hauger and Pak on their trip. A scary hydroplaning incident snapped Hauger to alertness around the 150-mile mark.
"I was praying, praying, 'God, please let us finish,' " he said later.
After Hauger and Pak pulled into the lamp-lit parking lot, a Tour official measured the biodiesel fuel left in their tank to calculate miles per gallon.
Yesterday, West Philly learned it had caught a major break. Fearsome Western Washington had taken a wrong turn and run out of biomethane fuel a few miles from the finish line.
"You know who's trying to sneak up, though, is that Jetta," Hauger said, looking at the scoring chart.
That Jetta belonged to physics teacher Kenneth Wells of St. Mark's High School in Southborough, Mass. He runs his stock vehicle on biodiesel to prove that "anybody can do this. "
With the race tight, West Philly had one event still before them. That afternoon's autocross, which involves zipping through a cone-marked path.
It was the Attack's strong suit, provided the car could hold together. The event could decide the overall winner.
Amazingly, West Philadelphia's miniature muscle car had logged the highest mileage out of its closest competitors in the total points standings - 55 miles per gallon.
In total points, West Philly stood at 665.8 points, compared with St. Mark's 652.6.
Shortly before the race, Hauger pointed to the number "1" under the "Position" heading next to his team's listing on the score sheet.
"Heh, heh," he said. "It's ours to lose. "
At the course, Hauger called out to Wells as he walked past: "You ready? "
"Gettin' better and better," the St. Marks teacher replied with a smile.
A thunderous Ford Taurus SHO piloted by an experienced autocross driver snorted through the curves to set a baseline time – 31.9 seconds.
After the West Philly student crew helped him into the cramped Attack, Hauger pulled up to the start line. An official dropped his arm and the Attack sprang to life, with its characteristic whistling roar.
On the first run, Hauger seemed tentative, but managed a respectable 32.3.
Moritz, the Jetta from St. Mark's, took to the course. Wells navigated expertly, hitting 32.2 on his second try.
Viking 32 of Western Washington snared low 30s, but was no longer a threat.
Again, West Philly's Attack sprinted out onto the course. As Hauger swung it around each corner and accelerated, the gray missile seemed to grow more aggressive and confident.
With a final grunt, it shot through the finish line, and the announcer said, "30.895"
West Philly's team erupted. Jessie Wagner, a teacher who had come to cheer the team on, said, "I need to go tell him."
Joe Pak blurted, "No, I get to! " He raced her to give Hauger the news.
The official results weren't in yet, but the numbers didn't lie. West Philly had won itself another Tour de Sol championship.
Contact staff writer Akweli Parker at 215-854-5986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.