The ride began a week ago when we arrived at Michigan International Speedway for the first track event for the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE competition on Sunday April 25. The culmination of more than two years of work was finally going to be tested. We had no idea what we were in for.
Monday was something like a bad proctology exam. A retired head of engineering from Chrysler who developed the Dodge Viper began the interrogation. His third question was “what torque spec plan did you use for the vehicle?” I responded “the German one” to which he responded with a puzzled look, “what is that?” I replied “all the bolts are gutten-tight”. With no expression and a flat tone, he replied “funny”. At that point I knew it was going to be a long week. After finding several loose bolts, we had to produce a real torque-spec plan and then demonstrate that every bolt was tightened to that torque. And that was the easy part - it went downhill from there.
Tuesday began at 7AM in the garage and we left at 9:30 PM. We sat down for dinner around 10 PM – Ann looked like she might fall asleep while we waited for our food. Mark recalled the ridiculousness of the day while Keith and Jerry lamented that they had a few more hours of programming to do on the control system that night. I’m not sure if they slept at all. I noticed that my hands looked as if I had been playing with barbed-wire. What a day.
However, by early Wednesday morning I felt the joy of coming out the other side of an abusive relationship. Both cars completed the first stage and received their little green sticker which were required to move to the next stage – dynamic testing. You would have thought we won the lottery when the sticker hit the windshield. The cars we had dreamed of almost three years ago were given their first official approval. It’s hard to describe that feeling.
The dynamic testing was the second of three required events to “pass” this stage of the competition. It consisted of a 0 to 60 acceleration test, a 60 to 0 braking test, and a high speed lane change test that were all conducted by Consumer Reports. The GT, driven by Mark, sailed through all three events and by the end of the day qualified for the third and final requirement – the durability test. The GT was running so well, Mark signed up for the two optional events – emissions and efficiency. The Focus was another story. I ran the Focus in the 0 to 60 test on electric only. The Harley engine was not working properly. I topped out at 58 mph in my third run and then the electric drive system turned off. We searched for the cause for hours – could it be the motor, the controller, the battery pack? We spent all afternoon Wednesday working on the Harley engine and trying to resolve our electric propulsion problems. We charged the battery pack (which is another story in itself) and first thing Thursday took another shot with the Focus. The electric drive clicked off again. It looked like two years of work was about to come to an end. Ann wanted to vomit. I prayed and worked as hard as I could. It appeared that our ride was over. We took the Focus back to the garage and fought the Harley engine. Keith reprogrammed the control system just so we could use the Harley for the acceleration test. I prayed more. Ann said she was considering getting Bat-Mitzvahed. Just as we got the Harley started it began to rain. You can’t do a braking test in the rain – you can’t do a high speed lane change in the rain. All the teams who had run those tests (about half by this point) struggled to meet the requirements on dry pavement. I couldn’t believe it was raining – and the Harley was barely running.
And then something happened. The rollercoaster began to ascend from the depths. The rain stopped. The pavement dried up in minutes. And the Harley decided to behave – and Keith’s programming actually allowed me to drive on both electric and Harley. We hurried over to the track and took our first run. It was 4PM and Consumer Reports was scheduled to leave at 5PM. They dropped the green flag – I started off slowly (another long story) and then punched it. The Harley coupled to the transmission and launched me to 70 MPH in what felt like seconds. I flew past the braking skid pad at 67 mph and stopped in the required distance. We passed the braking test! I thought we had passed the acceleration test but found out that the slow start kept me from making the requirement. So we tried again – but then the Harley died. The clock was ticking. Once again, the coaster was on its way back down. I called my mother and told her to pray. We fought the Harley again and finally got it started. I knew this was the last run. As the green flag dropped, I eased off the line, and then floored it. As I pulled through third gear, the car continued to accelerate. I decided not to shift – the car was going to reach 60 or the engine was going to blow. One way or the other, this was it. I flew across the finish line with the engine blaring at over 6000 rpms. The Focus actually accelerated faster than the GT. We passed the acceleration test and hurried over to the lane change. It was tricky, but we did it. The rollercoaster was soaring high again.
The Focus was scheduled for the 40 mile durability run at the track’s old Formula 1 course for Friday at 2PM. It was the last event of the week. Five teams showed up to run it. Five other teams didn’t even make it to this point. We spent all morning getting the Harley working properly and charging the batteries. The Harley was finally working and the batteries were charged. The Focus was running at its best. We arrived at 2PM full of confidence.
After a short drivers’ meeting, we lined up. We went to start the Harley, but it just wouldn’t start. So I decided to watch the battery pack closely and run on electric only. After 10 miles I knew the car wouldn’t make it on electric only. I pulled into the pit and we fought the Harley. After a long battle, it relented and started. It wasn’t running well, but with its assistance, I was sure we could make the laps in the allotted time. Two laps in with the Harley, I smelled smoke. As I came through the hairpin turn, the car lost all power. I knew something bad had happened. Fortunately there was a flag station next to the corner. I pulled in and immediately one of the fire trucks pulled up next to me. I opened the hood and indeed, there was a fire. Two years of work and all the hype, literally going up in flames. I thought I was going to vomit. The fireman used his canister and put out the fire. I was sure the rollercoaster had hit its lowest point already – I was wrong. Twelve years of building cars and this was one of the best we’ve ever built. How could this happen?
The good news was that we discovered that our disaster wasn’t as bad as we thought and that it had been caused by a stupid mistake. Oil leaked and caught fire. The damage was minimal. We filed an appeal and the judges accepted it. Somehow, miraculously, we’ll be back in June – with both cars.