Women Take Bonneville by (Ethanol) Storm
GM's female engineering interns tune an E85 Chevy Cobalt SS to set a new land-speed record
On the surface it sounds like the stuff of a normal summer in college: three students giggling about their internships, hot sun, running jokes and long days that have them crawling into bed at night. That is, until they get technical.
The three engineering majors are responsible for infusing a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt SS with such well-tuned technology that they beat out the standing record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. They were competing in the 58th annual competition, dubbed Speed Week, in Wendover, Utah, August 12-18. What makes this news sweeter is that the college students are all young women.
Their gender is no accident. It's part of GM's efforts to woo more women into mechanical engineering, beefing up prospects for its performance division.
"We go out to do some recruiting to find female engineers who are interested in performance," said Al Oppenheiser, who heads up the week for GM's Performance Division. "From our perspective, we get to groom future talents that we might be able to hire when they graduate." Indeed, one student from last year's program is now employed as a GM engineer.
The interns had a sizable task: modifying the naturally aspirated Cobalt to run on E85 (a blend of 85-percent ethanol, 15-percent gasoline) to beat the 152.626-mph land speed record set in 1987 by Doc Jeffries for the G/FCC class (G Class/Unblown Fuel Competition Coupe).
As the week unfolded, the students' skills became undeniable. On its initial run, the Cobalt (driven by GM Performance Division engineer and driver Mark Dickens) clocked in at 156.073 mph to break the record. The team then blew away their own record twice more by adding nitrous oxide to the E85, which bumped the car's horsepower from 245 to 285, culminating in a 172.680-mph land speed record.
While most of the summer was spent preparing for the competition, nothing could beat a week at the 90-degree salt flats, where the picturesque beauty and roar of race engines created a surreal atmosphere. It is memories of this setting that the participants — students and GM staff alike — will take away from the competition, many of whom said they will come back next year as spectators on their own dime.
"Enthusiasm for the program was high, because last year Speed Week was rained out," Oppenheiser said of last year's competition, where the Cobalt was initially going to be tested. "[The students] actually spent the last four or five weeks with the car and with engineering mentorship. It creates a family-type environment."
Heather Chemistruck, 19, a mechanical engineering major from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, was the only returning member from last year's squad. "It's actually a lot better than I thought it would be compared from last year to this year," she said. "So far we haven't run into any major problems. We have a checklist to make sure the car is set up the same every time."
Chemistruck handled the Cobalt chassis and the car's aerodynamic performance. After cars were brought in nightly to impound, she adjusted the spring compression rates for handling and tinkered with the nose of the car to reduce drag. "We look at ride height sensors and distance from the ground and how much height-to-ground changes."
Another of the students, Lauren Zimmer, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering major from Purdue University, filled the shoes of her brother and father, who are hot-rod builders and racers. Growing up around motorsports culture, she was quite comfortable throwing around her knowledge of the nitrous system with GM engineers.
"She can compete in a conversation," Oppenheiser noted. "Their passion for performance is supplemented by what they're learning in school."
Zimmer was responsible for powertrain hardware, essentially operating the Cobalt's heating and cooling systems.
Zimmer was enthusiastic about her all-female team. "People came up to us who were interested, because they'd see a group of girls," she said. "A lot of them were pretty impressed.
"I have never worked with a group of girls in any engineering class. It was nice. We understood each other. It seemed like it was easier to get a point across. In school sometimes the guys try to take charge. It felt like we could get to the point, especially out there in the salt."
Not all of the women started out as car buffs. New Mexico State University electrical engineering and math major, Sandra Saldivar, was new to cars this summer, but was hooked by the end of the competition. "I was kind of in shock and I didn't really believe it at first," Saldivar said. "When I saw the car, that's when it hit me for real. It was breathtaking. I've never worked with anything similar to this."
The 21-year-old was responsible for powertrain controls and electrical wiring on the Cobalt. "I thought I was going to hate it, but it's better than being in school," Saldivar noted. "I like the hands-on component, creating a schematic and the building itself, and if it's not working, the troubleshooting."
The women started their day with the chickens at 4:30 a.m. By 6 a.m. they were working on the Cobalt. The working environment was intense, because Speed Week qualifying rules are stringent. After qualifying for the record, the cars were impounded. Then, there was pit area cleanup. Typical days didn't wrap up until 9 p.m.
"We try to be professional and not get on each other's nerves," Saldivar said. "At the end of the day you can see everybody's tired."
But, she said, "When we did the nitrous run, that's what I had been waiting for since I got here. I'm overwhelmed and happy that all my stuff worked."
To make things work, the women worked closely with engineers from GM's performance division. "We learned a lot from all the guys," Chemistruck said. "They have plenty of experience to pass down. Either you win or lose, and luckily, our cars kicked butt and had no major problems."
Zimmer immediately took the good news back to her father in the Midwest. "He's really excited that we got the record," she said. "He's kind of jealous; he wanted to be out there."
The only race in which the girls did not break a record was the final run, using only gasoline in the Cobalt. Nonetheless, GM spokesperson Phil Colley said, "I think they far exceeded their own expectations."
Saldivar agrees. "It was amazing. I really can't describe it," she said. "After all the hard work we put in and all those hours, it was just awesome."