Columbia High School’s Electrathon America team lines up prior to the start of the 2016 Memorial Day weekend event at Portland International Raceway. (Submitted photo)
As of Thursday, June 9, 2016
Imagine a car race where there are no engines roaring, no smell of exhaust and no clouds of smoke from squealing tires. Then imagine a race where many of the cars resemble pod-racers from Star Wars, and you’d begin to have an idea of what an Electrathon America event looks like.
Students from Columbia High School’s Electric Car program recently competed at Electrathon America’s Memorial Day Weekend competition held at Portland’s International Raceway. Under the supervision of teacher Chris Hipskind, the team of four, using three cars, had their strongest performance ever, placing 10th, 13th and 24th.
This was their third race of the year, having competed at Pasco and Hood River in April. The student team consisted of seniors Coulter Roe, Shawn Tardiff, and Trevor Clavette, and junior Simon Hovinghoff. Columbia High School has been participating in Electrathon America since 2011.
At the event, Electrathon America teams from high schools and colleges all over the Pacific Northwest come to test and race their electric vehicles on the big track. There are two hour-long races each day-a long race, and a short race. The short race is the most difficult, with tight curves and turns that demand both car and driver be at their best.
The competition is for school teams, but other participants come to the Electrathon America events. Many are retired aerospace engineers who design, build and drive their own electric cars and are willing to share their knowledge and “talk shop” with the students.
Teachers in high school shop classes oversee and guide the students as they build the cars to Electrathon America specifications. Students learn about electrical circuits, steering and suspension systems, braking, alignment, welding, aerodynamics and a host of other mechanical subjects. Many of the cars look like space-age go-carts, with welded frames and roll cages for safety. Most are three wheeled. All are powered by special lead-acid batteries.
Once the required features are in place, the coverings used and outer designs of the car bodies are left up to the imagination and knowledge of students. Some vehicles are sleek and small, while others resemble mini-submarines. Everything from poly-carbonate plastic to sheet metal is used.
During the race, the cars whiz by silently, with the only noise an occasional rattle of metal or chain whirring on a sprocket. The intent is to make as many laps around the track as possible, with each car equipped with transponders to record each successful lap.
At the beginning speeds can reach up to 50 mph, but as the batteries drain or mechanical problems develop, the cars often slow to a crawl. Student pit crews stand by with tools, ready to make quick repairs and get the cars back on the track.
Before each race, each car is inspected. Any car deemed unsafe by race officials is not allowed to compete. Occasional crashes do occur.
Drivers wear helmets, protective clothing and use safety harnesses to strap themselves securely in the vehicle. Ballast is used in the car to ensure all drivers are of equal weight.