DeKALB – To normal drivers, 20 mph may not seem very fast, but to Northern Illinois University’s Supermileage team driver Lauren Bangert, it’s fast enough.
Bangert fits all five-feet-one-inches of herself into the specially-made fuel-efficient car, created by members of NIU’s Supermileage team, with one goal: To make it eight laps around a track about three-quarters of a mile long. The priority isn’t speed, but fuel efficiency. And on April 6, the team won the top award in the Internal Combustion Engine Prototype category at the 13th annual Shell Eco-Marathon Americas competition at Sonoma Raceway in California.
Their gasoline-fueled car, the #20 Huskie Rocket, managed to get 1,525 miles to the gallon, almost the distance from DeKalb to California, on one tank of gas. The goal of the competition is to complete eight laps around the track, achieve a speed of 20 mph and then coast down to 10 mph, while maintaining an average of 15 mph and only running the engine for short periods of time.
“It felt amazing, it was great,” Bangert said Thursday. “It was also wonderful to be able to celebrate that win with the team.”
Bangert, 20, a mechanical engineering major and sophomore from Peoria, is the only team member able to drive the Rocket, because of her size. She’s only participated in two competitions so far, but said the Supermileage team piqued her interest her freshman year.
Supermileage team leader, president, and NIU senior Josh Helsper, 22, from St. Charles, said his 12-person team won, in part, because their design is more consistent than others.
“Our team started as a senior design project 10 years ago,” Helsper said. “And those four guys built the car in a single year. They gave our team a really good foundation to work off of. Our car very rarely breaks down.”
On the track, Bangert has to steer the car, balance speed and mileage, and try not to hit the 15 or 20 other vehicles on the track.
“We only go up to 30 mph, which to a lot of people doesn’t sound fast,” Bangert said. “But when you’re in there, you have no suspension, so you feel every bump, and there’s a lot of traffic that you have to look out for.”
Because of the size of the vehicle, visibility is nearly zero, so she has to rely on her other team members to help her out.
“I would be on the phone with Lauren and we had other people positioned around the track so we could be her eyes,” Helsper said.
“During the competition, one of my rear-view mirrors broke off,” Bangert said. “So I was really depending on the team.”
To practice for competitions, the Supermileage Team trains on a dynamometer, which mimics the atmosphere of a track.
“It allows the car to stay still, and you can run the engine and have the back tire move,” Helsper said. “There’s a big, heavy, spinning weight that the tire will spin, and it acts like it’s on the road.”
During the Shell Eco-Marathon, the NIU team bested 27 competitors from around the world, including teams from California Polytechnic University, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Université Laval of Quebec, Brigham Young University and the University of British Columbia, according to the NIU newsroom.
“It’s definitely very rewarding being able to drive because we work so hard the whole year designing the vehicle,” Bangert said. “It’s great to be able to drive something you’ve made. It’s also really interesting to be in a competition, because a lot of it has to do with how you made the car and the driving style.”
The team is due to return to Michigan in the summer for their second competition of the year, in a tournament in which they have placed in the top three since the team began competing in 2012.