Home > Uncategorized > Day 2, Part 1: Thoroughbreds

Day 2, Part 1: Thoroughbreds

XprizeRoadTrip Flickr photo albums and YouTube videos

When I break during a music gig, people sometimes walk up to the stage as I’m tuning a six-string electric guitar and ask questions like, “What kind of acoustic is that?” or, “How do you like playing that there bass gee-tar?”

Now I’m one of them. As a musician fully embedded with Edison2 and blogging about Xprize, I’m the new village idiot, the guy with the trite, ignorant questions no one has time to answer. And it’s no wonder — today twelve survivors from a field of 111 teams began work at 7am and used every minute of a two-hour extension granted by officials to tune their vehicles for nearly 14 hours. The urban efficiency test begins tomorrow. The grueling highway test is Thursday, and today is go-no-go for final performance tweaks. Every team is at the threshold of history…100mpge in the finals of the Automotive Xprize.

Lon Ballard (foreground) leader of the Spira4U team

At first I hunkered over the laptop writing and feeling inept. But unless you’re an engine mapping guru, a laptop holds no allure in the Xprize garage. I looked over the top of my LCD screen. One bay over, Lon Ballard, the leader of Spira, snipped aluminum from a Coke can and fabricated a part for his machine. To my right,  Ron Mathis poured ice into the nose cone of an Edison2 Very Light Car, fitted with a styrofoam cooler, a bilge pump, and a hose leading to a motorcycle radiator zip-tied to a fan. The “ice bucket cooler” is a conductive cooling solution for air conditioning. Xprize rules were modified less than 24 hours ago from “No AC required,” to, “Temperatures cannot exceed X amount in the cabin,” sending teams scrambling for solutions.

Spira was not one of them; their vehicle is a cooler — a giant styrofoam tub bolted onto the side of a motorcycle engine. I got up the nerve to be the village idiot, approached their bay, and looked over the low slung tub: foam walls six inches thick, a full-length cockpit canopy hinged on one side with a thick insulating layer and small windows. It wasn’t pretty. The incipient form of their creation was less refined than other teams, but  their presence so late in the Xprize spoke volumes.

“The best things about Thailand are the cheap organic food and two-hour massages,” Lon Ballard said, beaming. Doug, his brother and team member #2, smiled with him.

Shortly after 9/11 they moved to Thailand to invest in real estate. The financial glitter of a condo market at 1980’s pricing and the Americans eager to retire there was quickly dimmed by the carnage they witnessed in the deadly road congestion.

“They’re putting cow catchers on cars to keep the motorcycles from scratching them…Yea, that’s real safe huh?” Their foam car is a radical design departure, created for the safety of the pedestrian as much as the driver. I saw a product with serious potential in the right markets. As I would soon learn, many Xprize teams began with a selfish idea — a way to make a buck or solve a personal need — and soon came to realize they’d stumbled over something with potential to change the world.

Chuck, lead engineer and part time driver for Zap Alias

At another bay, Chuck, Zap Alias’ manager of engineering, grabbed his chin and frowned. His eyes wandered over fat power cables splayed like octopus tentacles out of nameless metal boxes packed into the ‘engine’ compartment. “A lot of this is evolving so quickly, and it’s all prototype stuff,” he mused. But unlike other teams, he touched nothing. His expression was flat, calm.

“Given the circumstances you seem quite relaxed,” I began.



“Al [Al Unser Junior] is gonna drive tomorrow, but then he has to leave so I have to drive the car the rest of the week…” Silence. He massaged his chin and added, “Just a little pressure…”

In the bay of Amp motors, Tim, the head of electrical, was on his knees and pointing into the back wheel well of their modified Saturn. “Look at all this space. You have to push air out of the way at 70 miles an hour for what…the air in the wheel well? Aptera and Edison2 are smart to collapse this space. Pushing our weight, we’re over 3000 pounds, and pushing all this air…” His voice trailed off, pondering their chances at making it through the range test on Friday.

Amp is the only surviving retrofitted production vehicle. It seems no one was more perplexed by this than Xprize management. From the outside looking in, they appeared more interested in seeing a magically modified, 100 mpge current production car than the cars now populating the team garage.

At first, some of these surviving teams wondered if Xprize viewed their radical creations as  amateur-hour, forced on the contest by an apparent gaggle of garage-tinkering hacks on the edge of insurability (a potential conflict with Progressive Automotive Insurance, the main sponsor). But Xprize management learned quickly, as I did with Spira’s vehicle, that appearances can be very deceiving.

The mood is different now. A subsequent tale-of-the-tape presents a story of valid data and vindication. “Viable” platforms, the common car everyone drives today, all fell prey to the harsh reality of 100mpge. Whereas “Nonviable” platforms, these radical creations from around the globe, have now become Pedigree #1 – the thoroughbreds of our automotive future.

I was back at my laptop clawing the keys when a tenor voice with an Italian accent rang through the Edison2 bay, greeting team members and growing louder. I didn’t know it, but another thoroughbred had just landed from Rome and was headed my way. I looked up from my laptop and Emanuele Pirro, 5-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, stood before me lean and energized, his outstretched hand waiting for mine. He was here to drive for Edison2.

“He wouldn’t let us pay for his plane tickets,” Oliver Kuttner said later. “He believes in this platform all the way.” I watched Pirro as he gave his family a tour of the front suspension. He was light on his feet and moved with elegant speed. When he finished an impassioned review of the front suspension, his wife said, “Could that be a new solution?”

Pirro walked to the back of the car, turned quickly and swept his hand over the shimmering surface of Edison2 #95.

The whole thing is a solution.”

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Dan Frederiksen
    July 23, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    dude, we need video, not text

    • July 24, 2010 at 7:10 pm

      You need video?!! WHAT?!!

      I’ve been uploading videos daily. 13 videos up so far and many more coming over the weekend including an intimate one-on-one with Ron Mathis just after their history-making 200 mile run with the 2 mainstream cars, Emanuele Pirro, and much more.

      I have yet to configure wordpress to link to the other sites. Till then, all links will go at the top of each blog right now.

  2. Ian Osgood
    July 24, 2010 at 1:31 am

    Eric, you are a very good writer. Keep up the good work! I’m looking forward to your coverage of the rest of the week, esp. the near misses of Friday’s range tests.

    Funny that Zap is going to lose their pro driver right before the one stage of the competition that requires speed!

  3. William Flesher
    August 9, 2010 at 6:15 am

    Eric- This blog is amazing. Great writing, keen insight, unique perspective and genuine depth.

    Best wishes and sincere thanks.


  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: