Against the Odds, At-Risk Kids Learn by Building Their Own EV

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 07, 2010

The DeLaSalle car with temporary body in place. (DeLaSalle Auto Design Studio)I cry during sad movies, and I'm a sucker for an inspiring story, too. Nobody's made a film about troubled youth finding redemption through hard work and a dedication to transforming American transportation, but they sure could. And it can be "based on a true story." It could be a pretty good reality TV show, too.

The DeLaSalle Education Center in Kansas City, Missouri, is private, tuition-free and dedicated to helping at-risk high school kids. That's a story in itself, but it appeared on my horizon because the kids have a gruff but kindly teacher (Billy Bob Thornton? Tom Hanks? Ray Magliozzi?) with classic car racing experience and a post-career (he was an architect for 30 years) desire to help those less fortunate.

In real life, the teacher's name is Steve Rees, and he's not all that gruff, but all the rest of it is actually true. Rees started out just teaching the kids about auto mechanics, and building models that made it into Road ...Track and an exhibit at the Kansas City Art Institute. But after two years of that the students wanted more. "Hey, Steve, let's build a whole car!" On screen, it all ends up at the race track, where the team wins in a photo finish with the arrogant crew from the prep school.

Rees had connections at Can Am Cars LTD in St. Louis, and they located a Lola Indianapolis 500 contender from 2000. "We bought just the bare essentials," said Rees, "the carbon fiber center tub, the suspension and steering. No motor or fuel cell. We got the wings, but we're selling those. And we're not building a race car, but a single-seat urban commuter vehicle."

Did I mention that the Automotive Design Studio project is an electric car? Indeed, it is, carrying 21 180-amp-hour Chinese Sky batteries and an Advanced Motors power plant from an electric dragster project.

The DeLaSalle team has built a car that could set records at 400 miles per single charge, so saving weight is all-important. And that's why starting with a racing car makes so much sense. "There's a lot of interesting lightweight technology in the shocks and other parts," said Rees. "Even the small brackets are made of titanium."

Finding the car was just the start. Rees put together a team of nine students and as many very experienced mentors, including both aeronautical and mechanical engineers, as well as high-end restoration specialists, a racing fabricator, and two automotive journalists (they're the ones who stand around and take notes).
Kids didn't get to pick up a wrench immediately--there were important classes to sit through first. "It took two to three months before they let us actually get our hands on the car," said Mario Ramirez, who just graduated from DeLaSalle and starts at Maplewood Community College in the fall. "We had to be educated about how combustion engines work, and compare that to electrics. And we had to learn a lot about aerodynamics. So we were excited to actually start working on the car and get messy." Here's what "getting messy" looks like on video:

And that's what they did. Rees said the mentors outlined problems to the kids, and then gave them free rein to work it out. They didn't take on little things--designing a body was their job. "We just told them where the wheels were going to be and where the canopy would be located," Rees said.

DelLaSalle student John Shaw "gets messy." (DeLaSalle Auto Design Studio)According to Ramirez, "We started working on a clay model, and we designed the body shape, using metal wire that could be easily bent. When we had the basic design worked out, we shrink-wrapped some thin plastic around it. After that we made some improvements and created a fiberglass body that turned out to be a bit heavier than we wanted, so we're working on a new one."

The kids also designed the seat, and the propulsion system. They made the decisions, and they wrenched the car. The suspension has been on and off at least six times, and so has the outer skin. In the process, the students developed tight working relationships with the mentors. "We just kind of bonded," Ramirez said. "We learned a lot about each other."

If this were a movie, at this point the prep school kids would break into DeLaSalle's workshop and smash the car, creating a setback to be overcome. But in real life the hurdles are technical and less dramatic. The team was going for a single-charge record of 348.5 miles set by a Japanese team, but then somebody stuffed 8,500 Sanyo cells into a car and did 600 miles on a charge.

In late July, the car went on a maiden voyage around the DeLaSalle shop. It went fine, until a drive sprocket came loose from an axle shaft. Just imagine what a movie scene that would make!

Now the goal for a run next week at a Texas track is setting a Guinness record based on mileage per kilowatt-hour of batteries carried. That gives the advantage to teams with exceptionally light cars--and DeLaSalle's weighs just 1,200 pounds.

DeLaSalle students wrenching the car. (DeLaSalle Auto Design Studio)The controller on an electric car is programmable, so the former race car "could go like a scalded cat," says Rees, with a zero to 60 time of around four seconds. But that would mightily dig into the range, so it's going to be programmed for 12 seconds zero to 60. "As racy as it looks, speed is not what we're after," Rees said.

The Texas track in Fort Stockton belongs to Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, which plays the role of friendly financial sponsor stepping in when things look bleak. Bridgestone has contributed five sets of tires, including some with low rolling resistance for longer range.

"Bridgestone is interested in projects where we can give back to the community and contribute to the ecology, and it's not often we can do that specifically with tires," said Martin Yurjevich of Bridgestone. "This was a special opportunity to help high school students achieve their goals."

Rees said that Bridgestone "could simply have contributed to Habitat for Humanity or a cause like that, but here they were able to align with something that fit perfectly. We're a test laboratory for them, a petri dish if you will."

Not all contributors were so generous. One major battery company said they could provide some high-tech cells...for the discount price of $19,000. This team doesn't have $19,000.

I was wondering just how ready for the urban commute the project car would be. Is there a radio to listen to Car Talk? "No, there's no radio," snapped Rees. "We don't need a radio. This is a bare-bones car." Could it be registered, then? "In some states," Rees said.

Maybe the DeLaSalle car won't set a record in Texas. This isn't a movie, after all. But even without that, it's made a difference in kids' lives already. Ramirez is now a high school graduate, and in college he thinks he'll study "something in the environmental field."

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