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Time, Technical Challenges Thwart Dartmouth Formula Racing Team

May 25, 2016   |   by Jared Pendak   |   Valley News

DFR at Formula Hybrid
On their way back from an inspection, Dartmouth team members push the car back to the bay. Steering is Alex Newman. Khetiwe Motlana and Victor Contreres push from the side with Jake Herman in the back. The Dartmouth Formula Racing team was competing at the Formula Hybrid competition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in Loudon, N.H., on May 3, 2016. (Valley News — Jennifer Hauck)

With the clock ticking down, eight Dartmouth students are hard at work in a laboratory at Thayer School of Engineering, checking off items on their punch list.

It’s April 30, two days before the 2016 Formula Hybrid Competition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and the students — members of the college’s formula racing team — are hustling like a high-tech pit crew.

Senior Dammy Adeoti files down casings for low-voltage battery covers while junior Sarah Oh removes a circuit board from the gut of the vehicle for adjustments. Alex Newman and Leina McDermott are nearly ready to begin shaping the car’s bamboo-and-hemp-fiber body shell. They also need to laser-cut the decals for the vehicle, including its designated number, 24.

Khetiwe Motlana has finished work on the suspension, but now needs to figure out what to do with a fuel tank that’s too large. Thomas Cornew, the project lead for the internal combustion engine; Nadav Hendel, who welded much of the chassis, and equipment manager Matt Gardner are on hand for general assistance.

Under the direction of co-captains Ben Parker and Margaux LeBlanc, the team has been working to design and build a hybrid vehicle since September, but the urgency of the looming competition now is truly beginning to kick in. Some teams will arrive the next day at the raceway in Loudon for an optional electrical inspection. The Dartmouth Formula Racing team had hoped to have its trailer mostly loaded by now, but there’s still too much work to be done. The wheels haven’t spun yet.

“We have to get it running tonight,” LeBlanc declares around 8:30 p.m.

Back in September — when about 40 students initially expressed interest in participating, a group that has since dwindled to about 15 — the co-captains posted a mission statement in the lab: “We will build a car that is reliable, thrilling to drive, professionally constructed and can complete the endurance event for the 2016 Formula Hybrid Competition.”

The goal is even more ambitious than it sounds.

The team is made up entirely of undergraduates, after all, and just qualifying for the endurance event — the race’s signature segment during the four-day competition — requires adherence to a 178-page rule book based on the auto industry’s electrical and mechanical standards. In fact, the previous year’s Dartmouth team failed to qualify for any of the three “dynamic” events — acceleration (straightaway speed), autocross (maneuverability) and the endurance finale.

At 5:30 the next morning, the wheels begin to spin. The problem: They’re powered only by the electric motor controlled remotely by a laptop.

“It’s a little misleading,” Parker says. “We still have to get them spinning with the motor and engine.”

But the time left for troubleshooting and fixing is dwindling fast.

Art in Engineering

Dartmouth Formula Racing — or DFR — began in 1995 and, for its first decade-plus, built gasoline-powered cars to compete in Formula Society of Automotive Engineers Collegiate Design Series races hosted by various schools in the U.S. and Great Britain. In 2005, DFR showed up at a competition with a hybrid vehicle and wasn’t allowed to compete. FSAE organizers said their conventional test methods couldn’t sufficiently determine the hybrid vehicle’s safety.

Hybrids were formally banned from competitions the following year and, led by Thayer senior instructor Doug Fraser, Dartmouth got to work on hosting its own formula hybrid competition.

The 2007 inaugural event drew six teams. At this year’s competition, more than 20 from around the world will compete.

“I like it because I believe it allows students to engage in more of the artistic side of engineering,” Fraser said.

The fact that only three of 23 cars on hand passed inspections in time for the dynamic events in the 2015 competition makes Fraser wince, although he insists the stringent standards serve an essential purpose.

“It’s very difficult to pass the inspections, and that’s really always been a part of racing,” said Fraser, a Fairlee resident who continues to race his restored Jaguar at vintage vehicle events. “There’s an old saying, ‘When the flag drops, the B.S. stops.’ The problem is getting to the point where the flag drops.”

For co-captains Parker and LeBlanc, building the 2016 entry has been a learning experience — not just from an engineering standpoint but also as an organizational task. Many of their fellow undergraduates would be far less invested than they: Building vehicle components was the senior capstone project for both Parker and LeBlanc, while the other participants received no academic credit. Grasping what LeBlanc calls the “Pi rule” took time, too: Every task takes at least 3.14 times longer than planned. And enforcing accountability among team members through a shared “punch list” didn’t come until later in the project.

The co-captains certainly have automotive chops. Parker, 22, has been taking auto tech and small-engine classes since high school in Nantucket, Mass., and spent last summer interning at Tesla Motors in California. LeBlanc, 23, converted her 2004 Ford Ranger into a hybrid while a senior at Kennebunk (Maine) High and already has been hired by General Motors to join its battery software team in September.

But their skills have been tested. Nine days before competition, essential components — including the electric motor controller, the fuel tank and even the shell of the car — still hadn’t found a home on the 6-foot by 2½-foot chassis. When Parker placed the twin 250-volt lithium ion batteries on each side of the driver’s seat, he discovered how difficult it is to find a spot for the bulky red cables that connect them through the center of the car.

“You always think you know where something’s going to go,” he said. “Then you realize something else is already taking up that space.”

Meanwhile, they still had plans to install an iPad mini on the dashboard to display such data as engine and motor temperature, RPM and speed — information that would be sent elsewhere via an on-board Wi-Fi signal.

“Anyone with a device that has a browser will be able to view the car’s data in real time,” LeBlanc said at the time. “We thought that would be an awesome thing to add to the car.”

John Miramonti, a Hanover-based engineer who was on hand for support, was impressed by their progress.

“They’re doing really well,” he said. “They’d be in great shape if they had two more weeks, even one more week.”

Parker concurs.

“As it turns out, 12 months is not a long time to build a race car.”

Day 1

On a drizzly Monday morning, New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s registration booth is bustling. The racing teams are eager to get set up in the infield garages and get to work. Everyone unloads and unpacks in the chilly mist. The event’s volunteer officials, engineers from all over the country, are omnipresent in green-and-black windbreakers.

Ontario’s University of Waterloo won the hybrid title last year but has switched to electric-only, leaving the door open for Canadian rival Victoria, which finished third last year. Dartmouth’s own Ivy League rival, Princeton, is setting up, as is reigning electric-only champion Tufts.

The Dartmouth team, meanwhile, is still on campus after realizing its insulator monitoring device board wouldn’t have been sufficiently sensitive — a potentially serious safety issue. Dartmouth ends up overnight-ordering the part.

The team finally arrives in Loudon at 4:45 p.m., just in time to unload before a mandatory electric safety class. Just after leaving campus, Parker and LeBlanc had decided to switch from the hybrid class to “hybrid in progress,” which will allow the car to include gasoline-powered elements without the obligation to utilize them. It’s certainly not what they intended — both called the hybrid class “the spirit of the event” — but each felt focusing on the electric components gave them the best chance to compete in dynamic events.

Dartmouth Formula Racing is assigned to bay 21 of the north garages, flanked on one side by Sri Ramaswamy Memorial University of India. On the other is Rochester Institute of Technology’s “Hot Wheelz” team, a 30-member, all-female electric-only unit that garners lots of media attention and periodically engages in a tribe-like dancing ritual.

They’re much perkier than the DFR crew.

Day 2

It’s another raw, cloudy morning as the team gets to work. LeBlanc’s parents, Art and Holly, are on hand for support.

The team can’t withstand many more setbacks, but it learned Monday night that its master control switch had been installed on the wrong side. The tedious process of disconnecting all of its wires and welding the switch on the opposite side is assigned to team member James Thompson.

Electrical and mechanical inspections are in progress, but DFR simply isn’t yet ready to present its car. The team’s progress is interrupted when the co-captains are summoned for a scheduled project-management presentation.

The pair is forthcoming to the judges, lamenting the slow progress of the project and how they wanted the vehicle to be drive-ready six weeks ago, how their 40-person team has dwindled considerably. LeBlanc, who has been learning to be a leader, acknowledges that she has struggled with how to exert authority.

“You can’t force people to do anything. You can’t be too hard on them because they’ll leave,” she said.

The judges laud LeBlanc and Parker for their honesty, awarding them a perfect score of 100.

It will be their best score of the week.

Back in the garage, Thayer instructor and team adviser Raina White writes a schedule on a whiteboard. The to-do list includes installing the seat and firewall, getting the decals on the nose, getting the nose on the chassis, and getting the electronic “ready to drive” beeping signal to function properly.

The crew gets the shell on and wheels the car over to the central garage for a design presentation at 3:30. They impress the judges a bit less here, earning a 79. They head right back to the workspace, where five additional team members have arrived. An announcement is made that inspection areas, originally scheduled to close at 4:30, will stay open an extra hour and then re-open from 8-10.

It’s welcome news. DFR needs as much extra time as possible.

Day 3

The next morning, the team gets back to work with little sleep. It never made it to the electrical inspection area the previous night, but remains optimistic, using phrases such as “When we drive ...”

Outside, cars do begin to drive in rainy dynamic events.

Just before 5 p.m., official David Hyman comes by for a pre-mechanical technical inspection. He compliments the steering system as “one of the best I’ve seen,” but notes the seat belt has problems pivoting and the brake lines need tightening. He also points out minor gaps in the firewall.

“We can fix that with zip ties and duct tape,” someone chimes. If only it were all so simple.

The Final Push

DFR had undergone another pre-electrical tech inspection early this morning, learning that the resistance on its throttle is still putting out the wrong sensitivity measurements to work safely with the car’s motor controller. “It has to do with the sensor on the engine,” LeBlanc says. “We have to try to wire it again.”

LeBlanc’s grandparents, Nancy and Mike Plaistead, are on hand, and soon her uncle, Dean Plaistead, and three brothers enter the garage, one with a box of doughnuts.

“Does the Dartmouth team want doughnuts?” he asks, but everyone demurs. After practically living on peanuts and cookies for three days, more junk food just isn’t appetizing.

As the team works to reconfigure the throttle settings, endurance runs are beginning. The race finale sends participants around a hilly 1-kilometer route featuring 72 feet of elevation change and an array of turns. Electric vehicles see how far and how fast they can travel with the use of one fully charged accumulator, while hybrid vehicles are allocated a certain amount of fuel to augment their electric output.

In the hybrid class, Victoria makes it 10 times around to help solidify its overall championship. Turkey’s Atilim University is second in endurance with seven laps, but still places third overall among hybrid vehicles behind the Milwaukee School of Engineering, which completed just two laps but scored higher in other events.

In the electric class, the University of Vermont’s model sets an event record at 44 laps, its average lap speed just under two minutes. It’s not enough to surpass Binghamton, which traveled 34 laps in an average of 1:47 and scored higher both in acceleration, where it traveled 75 meters in 6.147 seconds, and in autocross.

Back in the north garages, Dartmouth Formula Racing is finally receiving its full electrical inspection. It’s after 11 a.m., but the team remains hopeful it can pass through both the electrical and mechanical wringers to reach the endurance event, which ends promptly at 3 p.m.

The throttle sensitivity issue has been resolved, but there is much more to go over. Inspectors Ricky Willems and Heath Hofmann spend several hours combing through the car’s components, checking management systems, wires and controls and ordering adjustments as needed. Hofmann finds a problem: If the battery comes in contact with any metal part of the vehicle, it could create an unsafe current. If they can lower the projected current to below 0.3 ohms, they’ll likely pass.

After some more tinkering, Parker announces the reading at 0.1 ohms. At 1:27, the team receives its electrical inspection sticker amid mild celebration.

“I feel like this should be a bigger deal,” LeBlanc says.

Maybe if there weren’t still so much to do.

The team raises the car and tries to get the wheels to spin. They do, but too slowly, and when they stop they retract backward slightly. Something’s not right with the settings on the motor controller. Troubleshooting over the next hour accomplishes little, and at 2:45 the team decides to push the car to the endurance starting line in a last-gasp effort to pass mechanical inspection. Victor Contreras, a jack-of-all-trades throughout the project, is excited to be in the car no matter what’s moving it. “Can I get in?” he asks, jumping in before anyone can say no.

The team scampers like merry bandits on its way to endurance — despite nagging suspicions they won’t pass. This is their car, for better or worse.

They’re greeted by chief inspector Suzanne Royce with the news they expected: “There’s no way we’ll be able to put you through in time to get on the course.”

LeBlanc replies with something everybody already knows: “It will be good for our sanity if we can pass mechanical inspection.”

There are a number of reasons it doesn’t, including a seat that’s too tight — it wouldn’t fit “Percy,” the model dummy who represents the 95th percentile male — and there’s a piece of sharp metal protruding from part of the seat. Royce congratulates them on the vehicle, but there won’t be a mechanical inspection sticker.

As the car is wheeled back to the team’s bay, it turns heads as it has all week long. It’s a pretty specimen, the amalgamation of multi-colored, intertwined wires on its rear a piece of moving abstract art.

It’s time to pack up, and for plenty of hugs. When the awards ceremony begins on Victory Lane at 4:30, no one from Dartmouth’s team is there.

Looking Ahead

Parker and LeBlanc had high hopes for the car when they started the project last summer, and they have high hopes for its future. They’re creating a “DFR Bible” to bestow on next year’s group in hopes it may avoid some of the management issues and mistakes they encountered.

As for their vision statement, the co-captains don’t believe they overreached, even with terms like “professionally constructed.”

“It was professionally constructed in a lot of ways,” LeBlanc maintains. “It was waterproof. The body work was very well done, the welding was very well done, the electric power train, too. We feel like it’s now a car that can truly get built upon instead of being torn apart and rebuilt.”

LeBlanc still has a few weeks on campus before graduating with an engineering degree. Parker, who is already finished with classes, soon will leave for California and another internship with Tesla. After the competition, he left Hanover to join his father for a bicycling trip.

When he returned to Hanover, he was pleased to discover the car was ready for a test drive.


“It was quite a joy to see it run, and a further joy that I wasn’t the one to make it happen,” he said. “That was some serious validation for the project.”

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