E85-powered Cobalt tops 277 km/h in Utah
engineers take on challenge Class record set at
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
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.
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
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
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."
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
This year's August Speed Week (Aug.12-18) began
with about 500 cars registered to try their
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
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
"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
Nika prepared this report based on travel
provided by the automaker.