All Good Things

The Michigan International Speedway is filled with all good things this week. Good cars. Good technicians. Good people doing really amazing things in the Progressive Automotive X Prize. There are a whole bunch of good folks here at the Speedway chasing dreams and chasing $10 million in prize money.


Small spaces

The students arrived at the Michigan International Speedway around 9 a.m.  A couple of the students came earlier, because Ann and Keith needed to relocate the decals on both the hybrids.  Hauger specifically asked for Carter to help with the Ford Focus.  Tiny spaces call for only two to three people.  The bays at the Michigan International Speedway are wonderful, but not big enough for 10 teenagers and four anxious engineers: Mark, Hauger, Keith, and Jerry.

Azeem writes below a little blog about his boredom.  Poor Azeem.  He is on the trip of a lifetime at the Michigan International Speedway for the X Prize purse of 10 million dollars, but he is bored.  His breakfast was rushed.  It is hot.  And he can only watch the other teams push their cars to inspection for so long.

In case you were worried, he will survive.

-Ms. R

It’s 10:41 AM at the Michigan International Speedway, and I’ve been looking for something to do. Just a few minutes ago, I was near the race track waiting for the other cars to drive around.  There is no such thing as driving today.  It is just getting the cars, or pushing the cars to the inspection garage.  I came back to our bay to see what our team was doing.  Jacques was putting tape around the wires in the trunk to hold them in position.  Matt (Mark Doughtery's son) and Alexis were relocating the decals.  Stefon was double checking to make sure the decals were in the right place.  Carter and Sekou were digging around in the EVX Gt for some reason.  And I have nothing to do.

There are 20 people in this small section of the garage amped up and scrambling to help.  Not to mention that we have a documentary crew following the engineers and students.

Now everyone is either doing a job or looking for a job.  We call it floating. Floating is when you want to help but there isn’t much help needed.  Just a few minuets ago I was floating around and now I find myself writing a blog.

I am a little bored as far as work goes, but I am having a great time seeing the other cars and meeting the other teams. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the day is going to be like.  We have a technical inspection at noon for the Ford Focus.  The EVX GT is going for inspection around 4 p.m.  Most of us are going to leave after lunch because we cannot be in the technical inspection area.  We are not certified.

Swimming, dinner, and hopefully a movie.

Also, don't forget to vote for us on



Big day

Today is the West Philadelphia High School graduation.  It is a big day for our seniors who made their way through four years of public education. Over the past couple days, the seniors attended graduation practice and their senior brunch.  All of these festivities went smoothly because of the exceptional behavior of the seniors and the senior class coordinators.  The seniors are growing up.  And I feel old.


This Isn't Rocket Science

Today, NASA’s chief Rocket Scientist, Dr. Bobby Braun, visited our shop. Even as I write this it is difficult to grasp. I keep waiting to wake up from this X Prize Dream I seem to be trapped in.

U. S. Congressman Chaka Fattah arranged for Dr. Braun to come to school and meet with the Team. The chief technologist for NASA wanted to see what we were doing.

Our students delivered powerful speeches about hybrid technology, the need for green jobs, what it means to be a student in West Philly, and what real educational reform looks like. The adults, as usual, listened with pride.

Congressman Fattah, State Representative Roebuck and Dr. Braun spoke to all of us and spent another hour answering our questions and taking a close look at our technology. It was incredible.

Over the last two years, we’ve had some amazing visitors including a United States Senator, a Congressman, a world famous musician, and a member of President Obama’s cabinet. Each visit has been as inspirational as it is inconceivable. We sometimes wonder if the kids understand just how big a deal our work is. While what we’re doing isn’t rocket science, it is real and important work for students and adults, alike.

When other people – brilliant, powerful or influential – validate what we’re doing, it should send a wake-up call to the rest of the country. We think the message is clear – when you give young people the opportunity and space to do real work, wonderful things can happen.

Scroll down to see video of Dr. Braun and to read Ronnie Polaneczky's column in today's Philadelphia Daily News.




Go Figure

In the fall of 2007, the West Philly Hybrid X Team started talking about the Automotive X Prize. We were going to build a car that gets 100 miles per gallon. “It’s not rocket science,” Simon assured us time and again. We all say it now. So what a shock we got this week when U. S. Congressman Chaka Fattah called to tell us that Dr. Robert Braun, NASA’s Chief Technologist is coming to meet the team and take a look at our technology. Anita was the one who pointed out the irony, “All this time saying it’s not rocket science and now a rocket scientist is coming to see us.” Go figure.

What's more amazing is that our Chief Research Engineer Keith Sevcik's life desire is to be a rocket scientist.

But this isn't the only funny thing that’s happened lately. Maybe it’s because we’re now approaching 3 years, or maybe it’s because the automotive world isn’t as big as we thought, or maybe it’s just a series of coincidences, but there are some funny things happening.

Back at the start of our X Prize meetings, students broke into groups. Some formed a PR Team, while others worked to launch a website. Another group investigated available vehicles and their weight.

When we were looking at cars that we might want to use to convert to a hybrid, one that was very attractive was the European Ford Fiesta. We followed the web to see if it was coming to the US. In April 2008, the New York Times carried a long article about James Farley, Ford’s new marketing guru who wanted to bring new products to market. I thought this was so exciting I carried the article in my briefcase for months. Then, I wrote to him on behalf of the team. We asked for support of our efforts and we asked to speak to one of his staff about how Ford intended to market its new vehicles.

We finally found out. Not from Mr. Farley, but from Philadelphia friends who are part of the Ford Fiesta Movement, a marketing effort to showcase Ford’s new small car across the country. 20 people – all extremely active on social media – were selected to drive the Fiesta and present the car and their respective communities to the public. In Philadelphia my friends Kendra Gaeta and Laris Kreslins were chosen. They were Team Philly in the Fiesta Movement. Just how unlikely is that?

They drove their Ford Fiesta all over Philadelphia and hosted a bunch of events to highlight the work of non-profit organizations including the Mighty Writers, the West Philly Tool Library, Mill Creek Farm and PAWS. For the last event, Team Philly invited the EVX Team and a bunch of other folks to the Riverview movie theater to see a great documentary about Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss and to see Iron Man 2. The West Philly Hybrid X Team was their partner for this very cool event, which meant I got to say a few words about our 100 MPGe Ford Focus and our terrific team members. As partners, the Fiesta Movement will make a contribution to the EVX Team. So, 2 ½ years later we learned about Ford’s marketing plans and got some unexpected financial support. What do you call that?

One more thing. Elon Musk has a cameo in Iron Man 2. Elon Musk is the CEO of Tesla Motors, the electric car company that had been one of our chief competitors in the X Prize until a few months ago. There were over 600 Hollywood movies made last year. Only one had an electric car maker. That’s the one we got invited to see. Go figure.

What do you figure’s next?




Summer Jobs

With the summer quickly approaching, one of our goals for our students is for them to find a summer job. All of the students part of the West Philly Hybrid X Team applied to WorkReady. It is a citywide online application for summer internships with various companies throughout Philadelphia. Maurice Williams of Philadelphia Academies helps tremendously with interview expos, resume writing, and providing excellent positions for our students. Septa, Parking Authority, Fleet Management, and many other companies talk highly of our students.

Yet a couple weeks ago, I was approached by Ms. Debby Brown at a reception at Saint Joseph's University. She manages the University City Swim Club in West Philadelphia. She needed lifeguards for the summer, and "I always like to hire local kids, because they work the hardest." Within a couple days, Justin, Daniel, and Michael walked over to start their training. Daniel said that he wanted to be a lifeguard but couldn't take the cold water. He is now training with Michael to become a receptionist/security greeter for the Swim Club. Justin didn't mind the cold water and passed both his written and water tests!

Below is a quick blog from Justin about his training. He came in on Saturday and was really happy. He handed me his letter of approval and was smiling.

It is nice to see Justin smile.

-Ms. R

Two days ago I walked into the University City Swim Club to see Ms. Debby Brown for a summer job as a lifeguard. I was nervous as hell as I walked to the swim club because I had never done lifeguard stuff in my life.

The application part of the lifeguard stuff was easy but as the swimming test came up I was still scared and nervous. The testing started off with fourteen lanes of breast stroke, side stroke and a couple other tests. The most difficult part of the test came next, and I had to do it in 80 seconds. The object of this test is to swim across one pool and then dive into a 12ft. 2in. pool, pick up something from the bottom of the pool, then come out of the pool and swim back across the pool. I did the test three times before I passed.

The next part of the test was the written part. This was kind of easy since it was multiple choice. The first time I took the test I failed it. I was mad with myself for the rest of the day. I got a book and went home and studied the book all night. The next day I went back to take the test again. This time, I passed the test with only one wrong answer. I was happy that I had passed the test and got a three year certification to be a lifeguard.

It is also good to know that I have a summer job.



Weekends in May and June are extremely eventful and always jammed packed.

Prom.  Graduation and graduation parties.  Working on hybrid cars in the shop.

(For the record: these are not listed in order of importance.)

Many of the seniors at the West Philadelphia Automotive Academy attended their senior prom on Friday night at the Hilton Hotel on City Line Ave.  The young men were handsome, and the young ladies were lovely.  The seniors of all the Academies (Business, Urban, and Automotive) celebrated a "Night in Hollywood."  I would say the colors of the evening were red and purple.  Jacques Wells, one of our mechanical members of the team, wore a bright red vest and white tux.  The white tuxes are amazing.  He looked so distinguished.  Momo Shen was beautiful.  She is on our public realtions team and wore a black sparkle A-line dress.  She looked perfect.  Her date, Maalik Wolfe, wore a black suit with a red shirt and black tie.

A couple of the seniors on the team didn't want to go to prom.  Justin Carter said that since he was going to another prom with his girlfriend/shawty/beau that he felt like he didn't need to go to his.  Sekou said that since it wasn't at a club that he didn't want to go.  They both attended a fundraising event for the Schulykill Center that Friday night with Ann Cohen.  (For the record: the event was not held at a club.)

Prom is very overwhelming.  It could just be the worst and best thing about high school.  It is an unrealistic night.  I remember my junior and senior proms were just awful.  I had to ask three boys to my junior prom before one said yes.  That is so sad.  I wouldn't even be able to tell you the last name of my senior prom date.  But I always loved my dresses.  The dresses were the best.  Yet, they are so expensive.  Now, there are all these amazing websites that allows you to donate your prom dresses or old bridesmaid dresses.  The material is reused.

It was just so nice to see Momo and Jacques really happy.  Ms. Hanlon, Ms. Ojeda, and I chaperoned for two hours and took tons of pictures.  It was really nice to see them dressed up and happy.  These next couple weeks for our seniors are going to be hard.  We have seniors that are not on target to graduate.  We have seniors that are giving the teachers are hard time with last minute assignments and exams.  Some of them are terrified about what their summer and fall are going to look like.  Others cannot wait to leave Philadelphia and start at Penn State campuses and other colleges and universities.  Many of our seniors are going to summer sessions for CCP.

The next morning, Saturday, the shop was full of bodies.  There is a tremendous amount of work to be done on both hybrid cars.  Many of the guys were in the shop with Hauger and Co.  Ann and Anita worked with students about fundraising ideas and sending out thank you notes to our sponsors and donors.  I was in Baltimore, Maryland at a bridal shower for my cousin Katie.  She is getting married in September.  I know her china plate pattern.

Weekends in May and June are extremely busy.  The weather turns warm and school is almost over.  Ann, Simon, and I talk a lot about the students and how are we going to keep them focused through these next couple weeks.  I think if we keep having more successful days like Saturday, we don't need to work much about student involvement.  It will just happen.  If our schedule during the week remains as busy, the students will have enough activities to go to keep them out of trouble.  Outside School Time, Kaplan SAT, Tuesday meeting, and Saturday School happens every week.

And prom is over.  The X Prize can regain its status in our lives.

Ride or Die

Ms. R


What will you do if you win?

As the field narrows and we get closer to the knock-out round, I imagine all the teams are hearing this question more frequently.  I also imagine that the answers vary as widely as the teams who are entered in this $10 million competition.

I started thinking seriously about this question over a year ago.  Ann had just called me – she was having a melt-down, “What are we doing in this competition?  We are in way over our heads.”  I knew how to respond because I had struggled with the same feelings several times myself.

We are not a car company. The West Philly Hybrid X Team is made up of educators and students.  We entered the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE not to launch a new car company, but to create an unparalleled educational experience for our students.  We wanted to demonstrate the value of engaging kids – their creativity and their intellect – in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.  We wanted to be a part of the collective push to revolutionize the automotive industry.

A year ago I realized, by that definition, we had already won.  We engaged an amazing group of students to develop our vision about hybrid cars and how to improve urban air quality. We developed a business plan to manufacture our cars in our community and provide pipelines from high school to the good manufacturing jobs that Philadelphia needs.  But more than that, we were being taken seriously.  The local and national media were treating us as true contenders.  Our students received unprecedented opportunities to speak at universities, national conferences and in the community. Sponsors and donors committed to support our vision and volunteers and students continued to pour tremendous time and effort into this project.

We have already won.

Most of you probably still want to know what we will do if we take first place and receive the millions.  Well, stranger things have happened. And since I do believe in Divine intervention, I would never rule that out.  However, the reality is that we are competing against teams of engineers, well-funded start-up companies and major universities.

Our goal is to ride the rollercoaster and show the world what an urban high school team is capable of.  And when that ride comes to its end, we will begin work on our next dream – to start a school.  We’ve learned a bit about hybrid vehicles over the past twelve years. We’ve learned a lot more about how to educate youth.  The world is in need of 100 MPGe vehicles.  Philadelphia needs new manufacturing jobs.

But, most of all, America is in desperate need of dynamic schools that work. We can’t wait to bring our winning team to that challenge.




Hybrid Rollercoaster

 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.  



Derby Day Reflections

I’ve been thinking about the Kentucky Derby all day. I’ve watched almost every Derby since I was a kid. I love the drama. I love hearing from the veteran trainers, the upstart owners and the jockeys.  This year there are 25 regular folks who chipped in and bought Noble’s Promise. They’ll be in the owner’s box watching just like the wealthy folks who generally own contenders in the Sport of Kings. It’s a great story.

Watching the Derby makes me think about the race we’re in: The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize.

There are 20 horses entered in today’s Kentucky Derby and the purse for the race is $2 million. This amount is divided among the top finishers using a formula that allots 60% to the winner, 20% to the second 10% to third, 7.5% to fourth and 2.5% for fifth. This means the horse that wins the Derby takes home $1.2 million.

The purse for the X PRIZE is bigger.  $10 million is up for grabs. That amount is divided between three divisions: $5 million for Mainstream vehicles and $2.5 million for each of the two alternative divisions. We have cars in two of the three divisions.  Unlike the Derby, there’s no prize for anything but the first place finisher in each Division. This is an amazing scenario for anyone who likes high stakes competition.

The West Philly Hybrid X Team has cars in two of the three divisions. That means we are competing against fewer contestants for way bigger stakes than those entered in the Kentucky Derby.  But, like every horse that sets foot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs, we’ve already made the big time.

We’ve qualified and we’ll be on the track at the Michigan International Speedway. The world is watching us as we take the next step in our remarkable and ridiculous advdenture. I just can’t wait to see the morning line.