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Finding kids with the drive

Their car may be up to snuff. But not everyone on the team is

Taking advantage of a sun-soaked day in mid-April, Calvin Cheeseboro, Joseph Pak and other students on the West Philadelphia High School Electric Vehicle Team swarmed over their eco-friendly sports car - sudsing it, rinsing it, and vacuuming the interior until it gleamed like a jewel.

They needed this high-performing coupe they had built from a kit to look good for a video being shot that day. Also, they had to road-test a critical axle repair.

A month earlier, flawed engineering caused the axle to snap - embarrassingly enough, in the middle of a visit from the Discovery Channel.

The team's coach, West Philadelphia Auto Academy administrator Simon Hauger, fired up the biodiesel-powered beast and launched it through a series of sprints and hard left turns around the block. This time, the car handled as if on rails.

But for the students, another hurdle loomed.

Who would be selected to go to this year's Tour de Sol, the nation's premier race for alternative-fuel cars starting Wednesday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.? Amazingly, last year, the West Philadelphia car had beaten out private companies and deep-pocketed engineering schools despite a near-disastrous mechanical failure.

The trip's budget had room for 10 students. Up to 14, though, could make at least a nominal claim of being "on the team. "

Their commitment during the year - how much they had hustled - was a big factor: Who had shown up for the weekend sessions, and who had gotten hands dirty and not just goofed off? Also, they couldn't be flunking classes or in trouble at school.

The instructors saw the Tour de Sol challenge as a way to teach students to work toward long-term goals. Between tasks around the shop, they'd impart tips for succeeding in life.

In the shop after the April road test, Ron Preiss, robotics team head coach and an assistant with the car project, teased Cheeseboro about wearing banned doo-rags in school, then turned serious.

"Anything you work hard for, you appreciate. Ask yourself, 'What do I want to do in 10 years? ' "

"Mechanics," Cheeseboro replied.

Do-able, Preiss said. "You lay it out: Bing, bing, bing, bing. "

Meanwhile, Hauger had begun mulling his tough decision.

"It's difficult; I just have to make a cut at some point," Hauger said, out of earshot from the students.

Typically when it gets made, he said, "there are some tears. "

With everyone still amped-up after watching the mechanical greyhound's spirited, near-perfect run, the topic turned to the race.

"I'm going!" exclaimed Calvin Cheeseboro, 16, tossing both arms into the air. The junior had proven his mettle through steadfast devotion to the car all year. Cheeseboro was a safe bet, it seemed.

So was Joe Pak, a renaissance student as handy with a sketch pad as with a socket wrench.

Bruce Harmon, an 11th grader, harbored doubts, despite his passion for cars and faithful service at the team's display during the Philadelphia Auto Show. Living in Northeast Philadelphia, he had missed meetings.

"I have to take three vehicles - the 57 to the 7 to the train," Harmon said.

For Terrie Gabe, one of two female team members, a demanding schedule barely registers as a pebble on the challenging road of life. She lost her mother to illness, her brother to a car accident, and now takes care of her ailing stepfather.

"I love my dad. I do want him to see me graduate," she said.

Although she knows that a female auto technician still strikes many as incongruous, she says she is following her heart. When doing brake jobs, for instance, her hands covered with gunk, her mind is filled with thoughts of "Gotta get it done; gotta get the next one. "

She felt confident that she'd be picked.

On April 25, at a mandatory meeting, Hauger read off the winning names to more than a dozen anxious students.
Within seconds, it was over. Pak, Cheeseboro and Gabe were among those making the cut. Even Harmon was chosen. They could still be taken off the team, though, by slacking off or failing school.

Hauger shouted something about having parents sign permissions, and the selectees bounded out to have their photos taken with the car.

Freshman Calvin Harrington sat on one of the shop's metal stools, looking dejected.

A knot of the Saratoga-bound students tried to cheer him up. Tyson Drummond, grinning, playfully jabbed at Harrington's limp arm. Joe Pak told him there would be plenty of time to make his mark: "You're just a freshman. "

Harrington, a willowy young man with pencil-thin sideburns, vowed he'd be back next year: "I want to be an automotive technician. "

On Tuesday, a little more than a week before the race, Hauger was cautiously optimistic.
"We're close," he said.

An alignment machine, donated by Pep Boys, worked perfectly. A brake line that someone accidentally severed with a power tool had been repaired. And fabrication of the car's new convertible top was coming along.

"Just about every year, there's a major catastrophe" right before the team is ready to leave for New York, Hauger said. Last year, it was trying to navigate the bureaucracy of getting the hand-built car registered.

As big a challenge, though, was getting the team to focus. Team leaders Tyson Drummond and Nkosi Harmon, Bruce's cousin, were missing in action from the shop. One was signing up for trade school for next year; the other had a job.

Several members were on probationary status for the trip for not coming to meetings and minor behavioral problems.
Harrington, meanwhile, had suddenly caught attendance religion, in the hope that someone would get kicked off the trip, opening a slot for him to go. Whenever anyone made the slightest error, such as securing a nut too loosely, he would shout, "Probation! "

On Tuesday, when Cheeseboro should have been working on the car, someone spotted him playing football on the field next door.

Hauger let out a sigh, and said, "Anybody sees Cheeseboro, tell him we need to talk first thing tomorrow. "
Hauger knew Cheeseboro was having all sorts of problems: He had been caring for his mother - who suffered from kidney stones - while struggling with courses such as Algebra 2 and desperately trying to find a job to help make ends meet at home.

Still, Hauger said, if Cheeseboro "needed to blow off some steam," he could have called.

That evening, when Cheeseboro got word he was in hot water, he immediately called Hauger's cell phone.

Worried that he'd get kicked off, he explained that he hadn't heard about the Tuesday meeting.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Hauger. "

Hauger seemed satisfied.

On a routine test drive Thursday, one of the car's Czechoslovakian suspension struts failed - making the car hard to steer and therefore unsafe.

Finding a replacement in time for the race would be difficult.

If they couldn't fix it in time, their quest for Tour de Sol victory would be dead.

Contact staff writer Akweli Parker at 215-854-5986 or