Granite Falls High School teams win, again, at Eco Car competition

One car looks futuristic, a sleek green machine fit for a sci-fi movie. The other has retro lines, something like an old Citroen. Both cars are winners.

“We have gone five times and every time have come home with trophies,” said Michael Werner, a Granite Falls High School manufacturing teacher who heads the school’s Eco Car program.

Those unique little cars and the two Granite Falls High School teams that built them — the ShopGirls and UrbanAutos teams — were back in their classroom Monday after competing in Houston April 24-27.

For the fifth year, Werner took Granite Falls teams to the Shell Eco-marathon. The energy company’s annual events in the Americas, Europe and Asia challenge students to design, build and test vehicles that are very energy efficient.

Both Granite Falls teams raced against deadlines to build all-new cars this year.

You say your Prius gets better than 50 miles per gallon? Get this: The car built by the five-member UrbanAutos team set a school record of 288 miles per gallon in Houston. It came in second in the Urban Diesel category, beating a car from Louisiana Tech University and bringing home $1,000 in prize money.

The ShopGirls, with eight members, won the Safety Award, which Granite Falls girls have won several times before. It’s an important award and a $2,000 prize. Werner said all winnings benefit the Eco Car program, which is a seventh-period elective class at Granite Falls High School.

With its fiberglass body, the girls’ streamlined car placed fourth in the Prototype Diesel category, getting 493 miles per gallon.

Considering the competition, the kids’ achievements are all the more impressive. There were 121 vehicles in Houston from 30 high schools and 53 universities. Granite Falls High School was the only school competing from Washington. It was also the only school in Houston with an all-female team.

The UrbanAutos team has one girl, senior Brooke Nicholson. “These boys have become my best friends,” said Nicholson, 18, who will graduate in June. She was a driver in the Shell competition.

This was Derek Benefiel’s first Eco Car year. “This has been an amazing program. I learned so much,” the 15-year-old freshman said. His father Jerry Benefiel, who works for the Boeing Co., accompanied the team to Houston. “It is our future,” the elder Benefiel said. He is proud that the UrbanAutos car bested Louisiana Tech by about 100 miles per gallon.

Both cars have Yanmar single-cylinder diesel engines, typically used in generators. Students work with weight limits. The boys’ car is 330 pounds, more than 100 pounds lighter than a car they previously built. Cars had to make 10 laps around a 0.6-mile track, with three stops to simulate stop-and-go traffic.

The ShopGirls team spent time with Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Benefiel said. “It was just a fabulous experience,” the father said.

It was also the culmination of exhausting days and nights. The teams toiled through spring break, and after arriving in Texas they worked long hours to finish their cars, Werner said. Along with students, the teacher credits volunteers and sponsors, among them the Granite Falls IGA store, H&L Sports, Midway Plywood, Pro-Wheel Racing Components, Staheli’s Progressive Tooling and Fiberglass Supply.

By creating super-efficient cars, students made great strides in gaining valuable skills.

“Everything is a learning experience,” said sophomore Brady Tetrick, 15, who made parts on a milling machine.

“It wasn’t just building, but machining we get to do,” said junior Dansil Green, the ShopGirls team manager who also drove in Houston. The 17-year-old hopes for a career in the space industry. Green said the girls’ concept car didn’t need lights, windshield wipers or other features required on the UrbanAutos vehicle.

Senior Hunter Theriault, featured as a Herald Super Kid in February, was the manager and a driver for UrbanAutos team.

The boys’ car, with a plywood body and aluminum-tubing frame, began with models and drawings. Students used computer-aided drafting. Werner said the boys had hoped to build a vehicle that resembled a Pagani, an Italian sports car he described as a “Lamborghini on steroids.”

Reality brought them down to earth. The wooden body and foam top were fused with a stitch-and-glue technique common in boat building.

Werner knows how far those little cars can take students. He shared a letter he received from Sara Rood, a former ShopGirls team member. She is a sophomore at Stanford University and is on a team that is building a solar-powered car to compete in the World Solar Challenge in Australia.

“The opportunity to create something tangible, to build a working, driveable car from scratch was one of the most beneficial experiences in my life,” Rood wrote.

“When I read that I think, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it another year,’” Werner said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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