Supermileage Vehicle Competition Builds Super Character

“Gangster metal fab” and a “ghetto look” set the tone as unassuming team members who had managed side projects throughout the year stepped up and delivered. Breaking out a football and Frisbee, downplaying endangered species rescue, noticing other cars’ idiosyncracies but always turning the lens back on themselves (why did our windshield look that way?!), this team built a supermileage vehicle from scratch and made it run.

Society of Automotive Engineers Collegiate Competition
Marshall MI

When the joke is on you….

Team Members en route to  Registration, Day 1
Zoom-Mass Team Members en route to Registration, Day 1

It might be because of the Canadians (in this case, definitely not the Cubans – nor the Russians!) Or perhaps it’s about J.R?  This story is definitely about a Hobbit and some douchebags, including a few who didn’t come along for the ride. It involves bolts, assorted bodies, and those who actually go to bed at a time calculated backwards from when they want to rise.  (This may or may not be cultural.)

There was a poker game, lake slime, and roadkill. Variable sleep. Some drinks.

“You’re not working now!”
“I kinda am!”

The government was involved (paperwork trouble at the border), as was private business (as sponsors) and charity. No problematic moments (technically speaking) were observed, although there were multiple small- and large-group dynamics. No interpretations were censored. Soul-searching intercultural conversation was initiated.

On the return drive from Coldwater to Detroit’s airport, Dr. J.R. noticed more live deer than the eight carcasses we’d seen going. (Not to mention the four indeterminate raccoon-sized remains, and Lola’s addition of multiple blood-stained splotches sans corporeal evidence.)

Site, Scene, and Sponsor of the Supermileage Vehicle Competition
Site, Scene, and Sponsor of the Supermileage Vehicle Competition

“Our luck must be changing,” he said, but in fact the team had already managed multiple misfortunes without casualty.

“I wanna see an SMV crash.”

Our driver endured several mishaps including a crash that should have shaken her to the bone. However, Ruta did not hesitate for a second to put herself back out on the track.  In the end, the dreaded DNF (racing version) was avoided, despite periodic speculation about a DNR. The first day’s amazing achievement of being third to pass inspection faded into ancient history as the team teetered on the edge of doom throughout the second day, confronting everything that could possibly go wrong.

“Mass-prepared as usual.”

Competition Day was interrupted by a thunderstorm before any of the twenty-seven supermileage vehicles touched the track. For the UMass College of Engineering’s 2011 SMV Team, the storm was prelude to a serious crash followed in relentless succession by two flat tires,

alignment and other tools
alignment tools

another thunderstorm, and a second crash. The single successful Zoom-Mass SMV run (six laps around a specified high performance testing track) was accomplished at the very end of a wet and chilly day; the uncomfortable weather enhancing the potential for gloom to crush the team’s spirit.. Although the judges were willing to hold the track open just long enough to allow a second run because “we like UMass so much,” “good karma” intervened to drop the damaged left front wheel off the car at the starting line, just before Ruta began to hurtle again around the track.

“Oh man it stopped raining already?”

Charlie’s quip on the first day (pre-inspection) was echoed by Nick on the second: “At least it’s just drizzling.” The downpour, thunder, and lightning had been predicted for afternoon: every team was rushing to get their vehicles running in advance of the weather.  The forced pause allowed the Zoom-Mass SMV Team some extra fine-tuning of the brakes and more precise wheel alignment.

Balancing: Team Members walked the track during practice laps, discovering & saving an endangered baby bird. "There's only three left!".
Balancing: Team Members walked the track during practice laps, discovering & saving an endangered baby bird."There's only three left!"

Then came the first attempt. After four successful test laps the previous day (during which the non-driving members of the team reunited a baby whooping crane with its parents), it was a shock to see Ruta and the car returning in the back of one of the rescue pickups.  Forty mile per hour post-thunderstorm gusts had ripped the windshield loose. Designed to withstand normal specified engineering tolerances, the extreme doubling of force gyred the windshield off its latches and under the left tire, sending the car into a 30 mph donut spin, and shearing off the bolt holding the left wheel to the axle as the car skidded to a screeching stop.

“Some crazy things happened” [J.R.]

Dr J.R summarized the team character: “Our response to adversity was great.”

The second attempt was delayed by the first flat tire. Seeking a correctly-sized inner tube added texture to the sense of tragicomedy. Ruta finally got the car around the track a lap and a half before another flat forced her to pull over for a second salvage ride in the rescue pickup (baby powder, it turns out, is essential equipment). One of the guys laughed, “They haven’t even seen us on the track, that’s how fast we are!” Dry humor peppered the team’s steady, focused response.

Ruta held up half the team. Photo by Jimmy Hsu.
Ruta held up half the team. Photo by Jimmy Hsu.

Those who were good

Optimizing air pressure
Optimizing air pressure

at the required tasks simply buckled down and worked out solutions. No one questioned or hesitated when asked to get this or do that. Ruta herself never blinked: she got back in a vehicle damaged from the crash, with a known design weakness – that had been repaired but not re-engineered due to the constraint of available time. There was a single brief flare of frustration from a team member naming an obvious oversight – which was respectfully acknowledged (later) by the responsible party. “Oh yea, about that…” Otherwise no one displayed their upset: team members took every obstacle in stride. “In the end,” Matt explained, “we all want the same thing.”

“In the zone” [J.R.]

“The time has come,” pronounced Andrew.

“I’m feeling good about this one,” said Charlie.

Trying to work the rub out
Trying to work the rub out

“This is when the praying starts, “ offered J.R as the Zoom-Mass SMV rolled out onto the track “held together with Bondo and duct tape” for the third attempt.  The Team did not hit their mileage target, but this “Apollo 13 of SMV” finished despite extensive damage to the aerodynamics of the body, including a persistently rubbing tire.

Adjusting the safety/escape latches on the windshield
Adjusting the safety/escape latches on the windshield

“Gangster metal fab” and a “ghetto look” set the tone as unassuming team members who had managed side projects throughout the year stepped up and delivered. Breaking out a football and Frisbee, downplaying endangered species rescue, noticing other cars’ idiosyncracies but always turning the lens back on themselves (why did our windshield look that way?!), this team built a supermileage vehicle from scratch and made it run.

Here’s to the Team!

“A free Corona for the first person to hit their call button,” announced a flight attendant on my Southwest flight home.

Ya'all are great!
Ya'all are great!

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