Early in the morning I met up with the BYU Electric Blue Streamliner team, climbed into a van and made the way out to the Bonneville Salt Flats for World of Speed. After driving through the western Utah desert, jamming to Boston, we arrived to the salt. Team leaders, Dr. Perry Carter and my father, Kelly Hales, had already hauled the car out the night before and got it through the dreaded tech inspection. We charged up the batteries and off to the starting line!
The line was fairly long, yet not as long as the same line during SpeedWeek held in August. With most of the team having been out the year before it was nothing new. Now was the time to wait in anticipation to shake down runs before trying to break their own previous record of 155mph in a class where the car weighs less than 1100 lbs and is all electric. Now was the time to stand around the car and do a little PR. The car was built by students over the course of about 7 years when the car first came to the salt. Nearly 150 students have worked on it over the years, most of which a have graduated and moved on, only knowing the fate of the car by keeping in touch with other members of the team. Powered by 880 lithium A123 batteries found in a DeWalt drills, the car cruises down the track virtually silent, especially compared to the monster V8 big blocks. The 880 batteries are good for 400 amps and 400 volts and is the equivalent of about 200-220hp being fed through the AC induction motor which will spin up to about 8500rpm which should be good for a theoretical top speed of over 200mph. In fact, driver Jim Burkdoll says he believes the car should do about 240mph. Jim is not just some random guy off the street or a student; he is the president of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association. The power is fed to the front wheels.
After waiting around for a while its a must to wander around the starting line and check out some of the other cars and bikes that are all trying to do the same thing- Go fast! There is all sorts of vehicles found out here. Everything from a BMW 3.0 CSL to several VWs, from Crown Vics to Camaros, to the extremely fast streamliners like Team Vesco, who holds the record for the fastest wheel driven vehicle at 458mph. They had come out with a different car than the record holding monster. They did however set the fastest speed at this event at just a fuzz faster than 321mph. Not bad.
After about two hours in line it was our turn. Jim, suited up, strapped in, and waiting for the arm gesture from Monte, the starter, stared down the track with the car whirring with a slight high pitch whine is ready. Monte signals and the car whistles downy he track. 2 mile mark, 140mph, 2 1/4, 146mph, 3, 122mph. The car was slowing, chute out. The car had shut itself off. You see, just like a computer, an electric car will shut itself off (or run in a safety mode) to protect itself. The controller sensed an over current fault. The line had been long enough that it was the only run we got in that day… We put our heads together that night and tried to figure out the problem. The same car suffered from the same problem the previous year.
Being BYU, we didn’t participate Sunday and drove back out Monday morning to try out a few ideas we had. Mainly, changing some the parameters of the car. Two runs nothing changed. The car was shutting itself off at about the same speed. After the second run we got rained on and that closed the track for the rest of the day. It gave us some time to do a little math and try a few more things with the car. We tested a few things but needed a part from the shop back at the university. Fortunately another student was heading out in the morning and would bring it out.
In the mean time it turned out there were three other schools being represented by four cars. Utah State University had brought a little biodiesel car the size of a junior dragster out. They hoped to hit 120mph but were having clutch issues and ended up only hitting 67mph. That was still good for a record in class so congratulations to them! Utah Valley University brought out a Chevy El Camino powered by a massive 572ci turbocharged V8. That car has done over 200 before but they were running a little rich and were only touching the 180s. The car sounded oh so nice though! The other school, Fox Valley Technical College out of Wisconsin, had two cars with them. I didn’t get any details on either car but they were an 80s Trans Am and a 2000s Camaro. All four schools were pitting nearby so we rolled the cars out a little ways for a photo shoot. It was very cool seeing all the cars, in their varieties, built by students, together on the salt.
The next day, the last day of racing, we worked frantically to swap out a part and still have time to race before the line closed at 2pm. We got the part swapped out and off to the line. Being the last day the line was only about 20 minutes wait and off we went. 2 mile, 120mph, 2 1/4, 135 mph, 3 mile, shoot out. When we got to the car we were once again told that the car had shut itself off. GRR!!! Frustrating as it were we all agreed on one thing; we may not have gotten the car successfully down the track but, not one of us, as a team, failed to perform under pressure. That is something we can take with us throughout our lives.
This was the last hurrah for the car. The program is over. It succeeded in setting a record last year and that is good enough for the school even though we know the car can go much faster. The problem is Dr. Perry Carter had retired after last year’s run and had come out of retirement for this event and no one in the current BYU faculty is interested in overseeing the project. The fate of the car is up in the air but it will probably end up in a museum or on display on campus. A sad fate for such a car.
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Photos by the Author