Of Amps and Volts and EV Cowboys
By Bill Moore
If you've every driven through the State of Nebraska, the chances are it was probably on Interstate 80, a long, straight, flat and often uninteresting drive compared to the grandeur and desolation of Wyoming or the bucolic beauty of Iowa's rolling farm lands.
But away from that washboard ribbon of concrete that bisects the State are hundreds of small farm communities and dozens of isolated family ranches. It is from these towns and villages that thousands of kids attend consolidated rural high schools, play eight-man football and eagerly await the time they can explore the larger world beyond the county line.
It is these young people from little, out-of-the-way towns like Friend and Freeman and Fremont or Hebron, Hastings and Hemingford, along with their "big" city cousins from Lincoln and Omaha that make up the core of the annual Power Drive electric vehicle competition in the State. And while their personal goals are as varied as their names and faces, during Power Drive, they have one unified objective... build and race the best one-person electric vehicle possible.
And they aren't alone in this quest to make their occasionally crude cars go further and faster on a nickel-worth of electricity. Similar programs have sprung up all around the United States. There are nearly identical efforts in the adjoining states of Iowa and Kansas, as well as in Michigan and in Oregon. All of these programs have a common aim, to help the student's who participate apply what they are learning in school into a practical, fun yet often highly intense form of competition.
The Power Drive in Nebraska began - - at the urging of EVWorld - - in 1998 with the first competition in the Spring of 1999. Sponsored by the Omaha Public Power District, Power Drive began with 12 high schools and two rallies. This year's competition, now co-sponsored with the Nebraska Public Power District and the support of the Nebraska Department of Education, has grown to nearly 40 high schools and five rallies held around the state.
Yesterday's fifth and final rally concluded fittingly under what can only be described as a case of divine intervention. The four previous rallies, held in Kearney, Fremont, Lincoln and Omaha had been completed almost without a hitch. However, as the championship rally approached, so did a lingering low pressure area and literally a week of heavy rain and thundershowers that threatened to washout the event on Saturday, May 5, 2001. But more on this minor miracle in a moment.
Electric vehicle competitions like OPPD's Power Drive and similar programs in Oregon, Iowa, Michigan, Kansas and elsewhere utilize a similar set of rules originally formulated by the organizers of the original Electrathons of California. The competition isn't so much about speed or endurance, though this is what helps drive the program. Scores are also awarded for design and engineering, braking, maneuverability and documentation. In the case of Nebraska's Power Drive, each team can earn a maximum of 1,200 points. A school can enter as many team cars as they wish and many are now fielding two and three cars per school.
A team can enter their car in one of three classes: exhibition, standard and advanced. Exhibition-class cars are those that entered the competition late, weren't able to qualify under all the rules regarding documentation and handling, or are out-of-state entrants such as the two teams from Pomeroy, Iowa that traveled to Omaha to take part in the rally held at OPPD's main service center.
First year teams typically enter the standard class. Their cars make use of a kit provided by OPPD consisting of a 1 hp motor and Curtis controller. They must meet all the safety requirements of the competition, but their cars can have open bodies.
Advanced teams can use bigger motors and different controllers. Unlike the standard class vehicles, advanced ones must have an enclosed body and a more advanced steering system because of their higher speed capabilities.
All of the cars, regardless of class, are limited to using 64 pounds worth of lead-acid batteries. This rule is designed to keep the competition more even and the costs of the vehicle's within the means of each team, many of whom come from small rural communities with few large sponsors.
Speaking of sponsors, these kids do an incredible job of finding sponsors for their programs from big town car dealerships to the Bear Cave Café near faraway McCook, Nebraska. Like Nascar racers, many of these electrathon vehicles are festooned with the names and decals of their sponsors.
But by 10 AM, it appeared that all the preparation of the last many weeks and months would be for naught as rain drenched the course and teams huddled in the maintenance bays at OPPD's Elkhorn service center.
The center is built somewhat in the shape of a horseshoe. The administrative offices are located at the top of the "shoe" with vehicle maintenance bays and storage facilities on the left and right wings of the shoe. In the center is a huge, paved parking lot and fueling island, ideal of a laying out a oval course that is about a quarter mile around.
OPPD organizers have gone to great lengths to host a professionally run event. Many volunteers who help set up the track, the spectator stands, the scoring tables and pit areas are OPPD retirees and employees. They freely donate their time to what is fast becoming a year-around effort that now stretches from the wooded banks of the Missouri River in the east to the arid bluff lands of the far West. For several of the teams competing, Denver, Colorado is a much closer drive than Omaha, Nebraska's largest city.
Two important early Power Drive organizers, Paul High and Kenny Kitchen, were both remember with a moment of silence before the race began. Paul, who was the real driving force behind organizing the program, died suddenly of a massive heart attack late last year. Kenny, who also contributed immeasurably to getting the program up and running smoothly was struck by a passing motorist while coming to the assistance of another motorist, just a few miles from the Elkhorn service center.
So, when rain clouds unexpectedly - - all the weather services had forecast a weekend of continual heavy rains and thunderstorms - - began to clear by midday bringing blue skies and bright, warm sunshine that quickly dried the track, a lot of people concluded that Paul and Kenny's spirits had something to do it. And they could well be right because by late night, thunderstorms again rolled back through the area bringing gusty winds, lightning and heavy rain.
Because of the weather delay, three planned heats where combined into two, 17 car heats that combined all three vehicle classes, with the fastest of the advance class vehicles grouped into the second heat.
The endurance part of the rally challenges each team to complete as many laps as possible in one hour. The really efficient cars completed over 70 laps, while the less efficient managed just over 50, and some significantly less than that as belts and chains broke, motors overheated and batteries suddenly, inexplicably lost power.
The teams could make as many pit stops as they needed, though each was required to replace its driver at least once during the race. One team has practiced this maneuver so often that they got it down to under 15 seconds though when their time came to change drivers during the race, they took over 20 seconds and castigated themselves for their poor performance.
In previous Power Drives, the tiny farm communities that make up the Johnson-Brock consolidated school district had dominated the competition with a very efficient belt-drive system that made their vehicles fly around the course. But this year, they were being matched and often passed by several other teams, including two from western Nebraska, the Number 13 Kearney car and the new dominator, the Number 16 car from North Platte.
The Number 16 car is, I am told, a story all by itself. Designed by two students who build their own wind tunnel, the car is the State's current epitome of EV efficiency. The car stands barely 18 inches off the ground. Its cockpit is only just wide enough for a very slim driver to squeeze into in a feet-first, supine position. It presents the absolute bare minimum of frontal surface area and strongly resembles the current land speed record holder for electric vehicles, but in miniature. One of its co-designers and drivers, Brian Roehers as also the winner of one of two $1,000 scholarships presented at the conclusion of the competition.
So efficient is this little EV that when the one hour endurance test was completed, the car had accumulated nearly 80 laps, several laps ahead of its closest competitor, the two advanced-class vehicles from Pomeroy, Iowa where the State's Electrathon program has been going for five years. When the pit crew tested the voltage level on the 24 volt system at the conclusion of the race, it still showed a remarkable 24.3 volts. Even their electric motor was cool to the touch, something many of the other teams wished they could say about their cars. Whatever the North Platte team is doing, they're doing it right. And in a few weeks, they're taking their car to Iowa to compete there and their teams from that state what the team from the home of Buffalo Bill Cody can do.
But, as Gary Williams, OPPD's corporate communication's manager and the "voice" of Power Drive, reminds everyone at each event, all of the teams need to be applauded for their efforts, those from the small rural school districts as much as the large urban high schools in Omaha and Lincoln. It is no mean feat to design from scratch a car that will go twenty miles or more on a pair of 12 volt batteries and as the number of cars completing the endurance run testify, the teams are getting smarter and the competition tougher.
No doubt, similar stories are repeated at other Electrathon competitions around the US and aboard. EV World reports on the Power Drive program because we helped found it and we can more easily attend a few of the rally's. We certainly welcome other electrathon competitors and organizers to share your program's story with EV World readers. We strongly believe it is a story worth telling, especially at a time when the world is looking for new and better ways of not only moving people and goods but also for positive ways to inspire our youth and help them find out who they are and where they want to go in life.
Regardless of whether you call it Power Drive, Electron Runs, EV Challenge or Electrathon, they all have the same goal, to help point the way to a cleaner, quiter, more efficient and self-sustaining world for this generation and many to come.
Power Drive 2001 Photo Album
|Johnston-Brock's Number 11 car in OPPD service bay waiting for rain to stop|
|As rains let up, teams begin moving their cars into the pit area for first heat. This is a standard class vehicle with open body.|
|Patricia Thompson, OPPD corporate communicatons office manager tends to trophies. Pat is consider the 'Mom' of the Power Drive.|
|North Platte's Number 16 car. Body is aluminum and chassis 'keel' consists of two steel tubes that run the length of the vehicle.|
|Friend, Nebraska H.S. Number 420 car was also strong competitor|
|Omaha's Millard West H.S. fielded three cars including this mini-Indy style EV. The fiderglass body was molded around a simple jig made of cardboard boxes.|
|North Platte and Kearney cars duel for lead in straight-away of the second heat.|
|Cars taking the curve into the back course straight-away. Advanced cars are capable of speeds around 30 mph and higher.|
|Super-clean and fast, this powder-blue EV from Pomeroy-Palmer school district in Iowa, not only pushed other competitors but served as a example of where the technology is heading.|
|Basic EV transportation at its simplist. A seat, a battery between your legs and a motor and contoller behind you.|
|1 Hp motor drives single rear wheel. This is a typical set-up for these type vehicles.|
|And the winner is: North Platte team wins advanced vehicle competition.|
|First heat lined up in pit in front of scoring stand, which consists of a flatbed trailer used the rest of the time by the power company for hauling equipment and supplies.|
|Stapleton, Nebraska H.S. Number 777 car ready to race.|
|EV World's Honda Insight ready to set the pace around the course for the 1st heat.|
|This team makes hasty repairs to this unidentified car in the pit area. One team went so far as to canabalize one of its cars to keep another running.|
|A Seward, Nebraska 'EV Cowboy' ready to ride.|
|Omaha's North High team entered its first EV this year using a unique lean-into-the-turn steering system|
|Two Pomeroy-Palmer school district teams from Iowa offered strong competition this year.|
|The race is now over for Elkhorn's H.S. Number 2 "Deuce"|
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