Female Engineers Break Record At Bonneville Flats In An E85 Powered Cobalt

Female engineers take on challenge Class record set at Bonneville Flats

special to the Toronto Star

BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS, UTAH – For three engineering students, it was a summer job they couldn’t resist: a challenge of a lifetime and a way to make history.

The mission was simple enough for Heather Chemistruck, 19, from Virginia Tech University, Lauren Zimmer, 21, from Purdue University and Sandra Saldivar, 21, of New Mexico State University.

General Motors asked the student interns to make a production car faster.

It was May and in front of them stood a Chevrolet Cobalt SS. How much faster could it go? Could it break a land-speed record?

But life isn’t that easy. GM threw in another wrench: its performance division wanted a record set on E85 fuel – a mixture of 85 per cent corn-based ethanol and 15 per cent gasoline.

E85 is the new buzzword in liquid power.

GM has been the leader in flexible-fuel vehicles, with more than 2 million on the road. Modified to run on ethanol, they run cleaner and reduce harmful emissions.

The company’s campaign (“Live green, go yellow”) aims to bring E85 into the forefront. Yellow is the colour of a flexible-fuel vehicle’s gas cap, including one on the car that will try to break a 19-year-old speed record.

Despite the environmental benefits, critics have been skeptical about how well this fuel performs.

On the students’ side was the fact that E85 has a higher octane rating than gasoline, adding horsepower and torque.

To take advantage of E85’s attributes, the students converted the Cobalt to run on the renewable fuel by changing the fuel cell liner and fuel filter, and calibrating the engine.

There was some unfinished business at the Bonneville Salt Flats, too. In 2005, the same car running on regular fuel proved more than capable of speed, but Mother Nature did not co-operate. Rain made the salty surface soggy and dangerous and the remainder of the event was cancelled.

The Student Project Cobalt achieved 225 km/h in shakedown runs, and was in line to make a record attempt when the rain arrived.

For this year, many late nights were spent working on the car that became known as The Bonneville Student Project Chevrolet Cobalt SS to prepare it for a run at the Salt Flats.

Each student had her area of expertise: Zimmer worked on the powertrain, Saldivar proved the electrical wizard and Chemistruck was the chassis and aerodynamics guru.

Bonneville is a dry lake bed, so white from its salt content that it resembles a wintry landscape. Temperatures can be extremely high, with the reflection off the salt crystals making it feel even hotter.

And the salt doesn’t just look like snow – it also shares the characteristics of packed snow. It is slippery and most vehicles need to be pushed to get rolling on it.

Some patches are wetter and softer, making for a risky way to travel at high speed.

Bonneville is not littered with big manufacturers’ displays. Rather, it has the feel of “if you can build it, it can race.”

And since the start, when some air force pilots decided to drag race their cars on this flat surface, Bonneville has become the final stop for any land speed record. They’ve tried in everything from vehicles that look like missiles to those that truly resemble production cars.

All line up with the anticipation of leaving a big plume of salt behind as their car, truck, motorcycle or even lawn mower reaches unimaginable speeds.

This year’s August Speed Week (Aug.12-18) began with about 500 cars registered to try their luck.

The student Cobalt project hit a remarkable 251.175 km/h record in the G/FCC class (G class/unblown fuel) without driver Mark Dickens pressing the nitrous oxide button.

“We want our car to show its stuff without nitrous first,” explained student Lauren Zimmer.

The team was ecstatic with the first run, but far from ready to pack up and go home. Back to the pits to make the Cobalt faster.

Once a car makes a qualifying run that beats the previous record holder’s time, it is immediately impounded until the morning when it can return to the course for a record run.

The combined average between the qualifying and record return runs are what establishes a record.

The Ecotec-powered Bonneville Student Project Cobalt SS upped its land speed record to 263.302 km/h, but team members were dismayed as a glitch kept the nitrous from activating.

Only one day after setting the first-ever record at Bonneville using E85 alone, the Student Cobalt bested its record by more than 11 km/h using E85 in conjunction with nitrous oxide.

The next run by Dickens set a land speed record of 277.902 km/h in the G/FCC class (G class/unblown fuel competition coupe) – a final run that would be a blistering speed for any car.

The Student Project Cobalt, powered by a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre Ecotec LSJ engine, set Bonneville Salt Flats land speed records in eight classes.

“We came out here to showcase those performance benefits,” said GM Performance Division executive Al Oppenheiser, whose team headed up GM’s efforts at Bonneville.

“And with the Student Cobalt qualifying or setting a record during every run in the fuel class, we more than accomplished our goal.”

But with only a small minority of stations available to fuel up (mostly in the American Midwest), it may not be easy to go “green.”

Canada has only a couple of stations and while plans are to increase that number, right now an E85 vehicle could easily find itself stranded.

But with climbing fuel prices, Canada’s ability to produce E85 should come into its own as distribution becomes more viable.

As for Chemistruck, Zimmer and Saldivar, who will soon be returning to class, each will have an amazing story to tell.

All appreciated their technical mentors at General Motors and hope to stay in the automotive industry.

Nika prepared this report based on travel provided by the automaker.



Nika has had a love for cars and racing since childhood. A regional racing license holder she has been involved with the industry, working with racers, teams, journalists and automobile manufacturers in sponsorship solicitation, logistics, hospitality, road show and communication program implementation.