By Wade Coggeshall
INDIANAPOLIS — It was a rough start Monday for Ben Davis High School’s team in Indiana Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education Alliance’s annual Super Mileage Challenge.
“We’ve made two heats and both ended with the car being wheeled off in a trailer,” said Derrek Sorg, Ben Davis’ faculty advisor for their team.
In the Super Mileage Challenge, now in its 18th year, schools from all over the state compete in various car classes at Lucas Oil Raceway to see who can achieve the most miles per gallon. James Thompson, IMSTEA president, says they had 17 cars in the first competition in 1996. This year 26 schools entered 39 cars in four competition classes, including those that don’t allow engine modifications and others that do.
“There are a few that have been involved since day one,” Thompson said of some of the schools that were present. “Some will drop out and then come back. Usually what happens is the instructor retires or is transferred, something like that, and they can’t find a replacement who wants to continue the program.”
This is Ben Davis’ second year fielding a team in the Super Mileage Challenge where the program is part of their curriculum. Sorg was eager to make it official after volunteering at the contest as a Purdue student.
“It’s a unique opportunity to get STEM education involved and show students how important math, science, and engineering fit together,” he said.
Getting one of these cars from idea to drive-ready machine takes all school year. Sorg says it takes about four months to craft a proposal and get it certified by the IMSTEA. After that they start building.
“Instructors have told me many times one of the good parts of this program is combining college-bound kids with the (vocational education) kids,” Thompson said. “They each gain an appreciation for the other’s talents.”
Indeed, the design phase entails a lot of science, which the college-bound students often prepare. Once it gets to the actual building phase, the voc-ed team members take over. Even though Ben Davis’ team is still small, Sorg has been impressed with how its participants have taken to the program.
“They really do enjoy seeing how everything works and interacts,” he said. “I have no problem getting them to stay after school and putting in the hours to make a good product.”
Those involved keep getting better at what they do. The first-year winner averaged 234 miles per gallon. Last year’s winner in the unlimited class achieved 1,261 miles per gallon.
“It’s gone up quite a bit,” Thompson said. “Usually the winners now average over a thousand miles per gallon.”
This year’s goal was to eclipse 1,500 mpg. Granted these numbers aren’t achieved with conventional cars. They’re all the size of go karts, one-seaters designed for optimum aerodynamics. Briggs & Stratton donates the engines. Each team is responsible for furnishing the rest of the car. Such fuel efficiency requires a lot of coasting.
“This is an educational thing for the kids,” Thompson said. “Detroit’s not looking at this trying to find the next car. This is about teaching them what’s realistic in terms of fuel mileage, engine efficiency, things like that.”
Thompson, who earned an engineering degree from Purdue, says the Super Mileage Challenge is good experience for college-bound students.
“Kids who’ve been through something like this have a leg up,” he said. “They actually know what it takes to get something done. They aren’t working from a purely theoretical basis.”