Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, March 22, 2001

Above, from left, Sacred Hearts Academy students
Cassandra Sangermano, Christa O'Connor, Candace
Nakanishi, Kelly Carrington and Monita Pang are
members of the team that will race their electric car
Saturday at Ford Island.

They're Driven To Succeed

Don't let appearances fool you,
when it comes to their ambition for
racing electric cars, the girls from
Sacred Hearts Academy have
the pedal to the metal

By Burl Burlingame

One Sacred Hearts Academy girl became so discouraged during her first attempt at welding that she was near tears. The pieces of pipe were scabby with globs of melted metal, and it wasn't very pretty. "Don't worry about how it looks, just pick it up," instructed Bill Schadt, a volunteer from Chevron and a piping engineer.

"It's hot," she complained, hefting the braised assembly.

"Now throw it," he said. "As far as you can."

She did, and the assembly bounced across the Scared Hearts lawn and banged off the side of a stone wall. "Now do it again," said Schadt, and she did, and the welded pipes repeatedly slammed against the wall.

"Now," said Schadt. "Pick it up and look at it."

She did.

"What do you notice?"

She shrugged.

Nakanishi and Sangermano sand the car's
Fiberglas body.

"It's still in one piece. Your welding might not look professional, but it's as strong as a professional's, and that's what counts."

This kind of solid advice has served the girls of Sacred Hearts well in the annual battery-car race sponsored by Hawaiian Electric -- the sixth of which takes place tomorrow. They've always made it to the top half-dozen despite a field of more than 20 entries, many from schools with large, well-stocked shop and automotive classes. The competition is so tough that a third of the entries don't complete the race, much less make it to the starting line.

The kids at Sacred Hearts have patched together a tiny garage/workshop in an alcove in a hallway, which holds their current creation plus the preserved remnants of past competitors. There are some air tools and chemicals, some manuals and a blackboard containing the legend "Refuse to Lose!" It's the closest thing to a shop class in the all-girls school.

Besides Schadt, the other spark plug for Sacred Hearts' electric-car program is attorney Carl Debo, a car and racing enthusiast. The program is treated like a club, so the girls are at the mercy of conflicting classes and other academic demands -- other schools actually have electric-car as a class elective -- but Debo is continually surprised and pleased by the girls' craftsmanship and engineering abilities.

From left, Christa O'Connor, Cassandra
Sangermano and Kelly Carrington replace
a wheel on their electric car.

Take the differential. Please. In a real car, the differential keeps the wheels geared but allows them to turn at different rates, keeping a constant speed in turns. "We bought a machined differential for the rear axle that fell apart the week before the race last year," Debo said. "We were brainstorming how to create a new one, and some of the girls just said, why don't we just cut the axle? My mouth just fell open. It was a brilliant solution that not only saved us money, it saved us weight."

The electric cars are so light that one-wheel drive doesn't make a difference. The girls' welding on the truss supports allows them to make minute adjustments to the wheel alignment, which is also aided by having a hollow axle -- they just run a bar through to align the separated axles.

Although each school is allowed to approach electric-car design in its own way, certain criteria have to be met. The batteries can weigh no more than 64 pounds, and the students have to drive the car for an hour with a payload of 180 pounds. If the driver weighs only 90 pounds, they get loaded down with lead weights.

"Sometimes the drivers have to be lifted into the car," Debo chuckled.

The car that goes the farthest in the time allotted wins, simple as that. And don't expect to see these things creeping along. Average speed is 30 miles per hour. The Sacred Hearts car can do 45. "Change the gearing, and it could do 60," Schadt said.

It takes money too, and Sacred Hearts' electric angel from the beginning has been Saturn. (Schadt was loaned from Chevron at the beginning to figure out a valve problem, and has been volunteering ever since.) "Saturn just doesn't write us a check and leave us alone, they've pitched in and given seminars in teamwork and how commitment to quality pays off," Debo said. "They've even shown off the girls' car at car shows. Saturn's been great."

The program begins every year with Debo "locking the girls in a conference room so they can re-evaluate the previous year's entry and decide on modifications and improvements. I just bring them food and water," he said. "This summer, they want to take a two-week vacation and then jump right back into it."

This year they decided to modify and tweak last year's creation, an eye-popping yellow number they called "Sparky" because it reminded them of a fire engine. The primary difference is the addition of a larger body to make it more aerodynamic. "They figured out that less drag would make the vehicle more efficient, as well as faster," Debo said. "They went down to the Super Prix last year and were allowed to take apart one of the Indy cars to see how it went together, and that influenced them."

A new frame was created out of dense foam and composite epoxies. The body shape was modeled out of clay and then rendered in full scale with that best-known of girls' school decorative materials, papier mache. But then high-tech Fiberglas and epoxy was laid over the papier mache and the insides dug out. The resulting shape is light, strong and painted all-white. The girls named this edition "Patrique," because it featured so many Fiberglas patches. It's like the "funny car" division of stock-car racing.

"Most of the schools don't start with blueprints," Debo said. "Otherwise the projects get too big and you wind up creating 20-foot cars. Better to mark an approximate size on the floor and build up from there. All the schools have chalk outlines and masking tape on the floor that they started from."

If there's a student spark plug, she's Kelly Carrington, 17, who actually has a NASCAR-driving cousin. "I just like building stuff," said Carrington, as the crowd of girls had a giggle-fit. "It's just part of being creative. What I like about the electric car competition is that it combines engineering, science and art. It's integrated study."

"We use a lot from other subjects in school," confirmed Anne Yamanoha, 14.

"The teachers are always walking by and looking at us, and they say, you still working on that?" said Monita Pang, 17. "But you can tell they're really interested."

"Here's one of Kelly's genius ideas," said Debo, pointing into the car's front while Carrington shrugged in embarrassment. "To accommodate various-sized drivers -- like me, I'm the crash-test dummy -- she made the pedals adjustable. It's really well-executed too."

Another accommodation are two mystery holes cut in the top of the hood. "For the driver's knees," explained Christa O'Connor, 14.

"It's fun, but there are hard parts," said Kristen Debo, 15. "Like thinking about it all. That's hard," which caused her father Carl to laugh.

Candace Nakanishi insisted that "sanding was the hardest. It's so time-consuming. Sanding Day is Tuesday -- be there!"

There's no question about who will drive; the driver must have a license, and the group only has one driver this year. But there's plenty for everyone to do, ranging from pit crew to preparing an oral presentation. Debo said he spends race day in the stands, letting the girls do it all themselves.

Kristen Debo is doing this year's oral presentation, and her father said the school is proud of the fact that the last two orals were won by Sacred Hearts intermediate schoolers, going up against high-schoolers.

"Preparing for the orals is nerve-wracking," Kristen admitted. "It's scary. Saturday will come, and all that could be done has been done. No second chances. You just hope for the best."

Hawaiian Electric provides each school with standard parts: a Scott one-horse electric motor, a potentiometer and a mysterious black box that controls the engine. "This engine is used in golf-course lawn mowers," Schadt said.

They did what they could to tweak the engine, to the point of having it rebalanced in a shop. But it was as efficient as it could be. What was left was fine-tuning the rest of the design, keeping the car as light and as efficient as possible, trying not to scrub off ergs of power fighting the turns, for example. And perfecting their mechanical skills.

Which brings us back to welding, not a typical girls' school elective. "Kristen was looking at some of my welding in the garage the other day," Debo sighed. "She was appalled. She said, 'Look, Dad, next time, let me do that FOR you, OK?' "

You got the power

The sixth annual Hawaiian Electric Electron Marathon:

When: Race begins at 10 a.m., Saturday. Gates open at 7:30
Where: Ford Island
Admission: Free
Sponsors: U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Energy, state Department of Education. Others include Hawaiian Electric Light Company and Maui Electric Company, and Young Brothers, Ltd.
Before the high-school event, an all-military race will take place starting at 9:15 a.m. with electric cars entered by the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines.
Event will be broadcast at 6 p.m. April 7 on KITV, repeats at 1:30 p.m. April 8
Call: 543-7778

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