“This was a real year of firsts,” Dick Williams, president of Shell Windenergy, told the crowd of hundreds in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas Sunday evening, at the closing ceremony to the Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2012.
“This is the first year we had a flash mob come dance on our stage,” said Williams. The event had gotten off to a raucous start, with students dancing and hamming it up in front of their teammembers and supporters.
“This is the first time someone got their head shaved because their team had a good run. This is the first year we had a team mascot [a guy in a plush horse suit], and our first articulated car [a team from Grand Rapids High School in Minnesota used segmented hockey sticks as part of their chassis to facilitiate sharper turns]. One of my favorite cars I call the big pickle,” Williams continued.
The official big winners on the track included Mater Dei High School from Evansville and Louisiana Tech University, two teams who have won before at the annual challenge, which this year brought together a record number of entrants from 37 high schools and 44 colleges. This included five teams from Brazil, five from Canada, two from Mexico, and 124 from the U.S.
Students competed by driving six-mile runs around downtown Houston’s Discovery Green, while trying to maintain an average speed of 15 mph. The goal is the highest fuel efficiency, in categories that included gas, diesel, ethanol, electric, solar-powered, and hydrogen fuel-cell cars.
Along the way there were a few crashes (this reporter is not aware of any injuries) and plenty of mechanical challenges, which pushed students to work together and think on their feet. Audrey Laine, a teammember from Laval University in Quebec, said, “I think it is very exciting, and I’m very proud because of my teammates.”
Laval had entered this year’s competition as a favorite, having won the student design award the past three years running. The team unveiled a new, super-aerodynamic body for their gas car this year, but they struggled with some technical problems through the four-day event.
Laine, who drove the futuristic-looking car, said the hardest part of the road course is avoiding the bumps. About weaving around the other drivers on the track, she said, “It’s like a jungle.”
Jose Bravo, a chief scientist with Shell who works in manufacturing, and who was volunteering at the Shell-sponsored event, said the Eco-marathon brings together mobility, innovation, new fuels, construction, a competitive landscape, and environmental concerns. “If someone breaks the lap record they’re not going to win, because it’s all about staying the course,” Bravo explained.
“Reliability is critical, because you’ve got to complete the race,” Bravo said. He added that teams that have been coming to the Shell Eco-marathon year after year have an advantage at awards time.
Still, there were some upsets on the podium, with Laval struggling and the Eco-design award going to a local school that participated for only its second year. While Westside High School collected their trophy and check (each winner got $1,000 or $2,000, depending on the category and level) for their bamboo-and-hemp electric car, the loud speakers played Kermit the Frog’s “It Ain’t Easy Being Green.”
Westside was also presented with a “basket of parts we found on the track,” Williams said.
Louisiana Tech scored the design award for “one heck of a paint job, for a hot rod with flames on it, and for overall one heck of a design,” said Williams. Tech also won the spirit award, for having “one heck of a margarita machine in their paddock. Their alumni were the loudest out there, and they were throwing Mardi Gras beads. But the most important thing is that they mentored five [high school] teams to come here this year.”
Grand Rapids High School was given the technological innovation award for their unique turning system, in which the driver bends their body to make the turn, thanks to those hockey sticks.
James Madison High School from San Antonio, Texas won an award for perseverance in the face of adversity, after their team’s garage was broken into the night before they left for the competition. Thieves had made off with the team’s wire, leaving them scrambling.
In a light moment, someone shouted, “Someone must have stole them!” since the team had already headed home by awards time.
Besides giving out the rest of the awards, below, Williams thanked co-sponsors Michelin and Pennzoil. He also gave out two $1,000 scholarships.
Toward the end of the evening, Williams said, “You’all are an inspiration to us here at Shell. We look at what you can do with bolts, tires, fuel cells, batteries, everything like that, and it makes us hopeful for the future.” He added that Shell is considering expanding to a fourth location next year, in addition to tournaments in Europe and Asia that are planned for this summer.
During presentation of the award for best diesel car, Flo Rida’s song “Good Feeling” played over the soundsystem. Much of the crowd spontaneously sang along, “Oh-oh oh, sometimes I get a good feeling, yeah.” It’s a fitting song for the successful event.