By Silas Allen
JENNINGS, Okla. —
Under a canopy at Hallett Motor Racing Circuit Tuesday afternoon, a group of students crowded around a small racecar.
A chain had broken, and the students, along with engineering professor Jim Beckstrom, were working to fix it and get the car back on the track.
The car was a racing vehicle built by OKstate Racing, a student-run Formula SAE racing team at Oklahoma State University. When the team built the car, it was meant to be used in short races — nothing like the 24-hour marathon the car ran Tuesday. Beckstrom, the group’s faculty adviser, said the sheer number of miles the car logged during Tuesday’s event brought about minor unforeseen troubles, like the broken chain, but it was nothing the team couldn’t fix.
“These cars are only designed to run 30 minutes,” Beckstrom said.
The team held the event to test the car, which they've converted to run on compressed natural gas over the past year. When all was said and done, the car made 328 laps around the track, logging a total of 590 miles.
"This has never been done before, period," Beckstrom said. "This sets the world record for longest distance traveled, more than 590 miles, by a Formula SAE racing car of any type, by an FSAE car fueled by CNG or a CNG race car of any kind. It has been a great success for our team, for OSU and for Oklahoma."
The team met at 4 a.m. Tuesday to load the car up and take it to the racetrack, Beckstrom said, and by 6 a.m., the car was on the track. The team switched out drivers throughout the day, allowing each team member to take a break and sit in the track’s air-conditioned cafe or try to get some sleep to prepare for the next time behind the wheel.
Rain showers Tuesday morning had been a concern, Beckstrom said, but the team’s drivers handled the weather better than he expected.
“We had some really good drivers driving in that rain,” he said.
Apart from the number of miles the car logged during the event, the car’s 24-hour run was significant for another reason. When the team built the car, it included a standard gasoline engine. But over the last year, the team has converted the car to run on compressed natural gas.
“We wanted to do something that was bold and different,” Beckstrom said. “This is bold and different.”
About a year ago, the students on the team expressed interest in converting one of their cars to CNG, Beckstrom said. The team builds a new car each year, he said, and that car is only eligible to be entered in races for one year, so the group already had a vehicle available to be converted to CNG. The car the team converted was built in 2008 and raced at the Virginia International Raceway in Danville, Va.
Beckstrom said Tuesday afternoon that the car’s CNG system had been working well. The use of CNG works particularly well with the car’s engine, he said. CNG acts more or less the same as high-octane gasoline, making it a good choice for racing.
“It’s a great high-performance fuel,” he said. “It’s like super-premium gasoline.”
Alex Diamond, one of the students in the group, said the idea for the car came as a kind of offshoot to the Pickens Plan, oilman T. Boone Pickens’ initiative to reduce American dependence on foreign energy sources. The use of natural gas is a major component of the plan.
The idea had several advantages, Diamond said. Because Oklahoma is a natural gas-producing state, it makes sense for OSU to be leading the way in the use of the fuel for racing. The car is also a good way for the team to set itself apart from other collegiate Formula SAE teams in the country, he said.
When the team began work on converting the car, they got help from technicians at the U.S. Postal Service’s training center in Norman, said team member Chris Foote. Technicians were also on hand at the event Tuesday to provide expertise and take a turn behind the wheel.
The team also received a considerable amount of help from Beckstrom, who has a background in CNG, Foote said. While the team worked on designing and building its competition car for this year, Foote said, Beckstrom continued to work on the CNG car.
Apart from converting it to run on CNG, Foote said, the team had to make a few alterations to the car to allow it to run a 24-hour event. To begin with, he said, the car’s original tires were designed for races between one and 30 minutes in length. Those tires never would have held up to a 24-hour event, he said. The team also had to install lights on the car so it could run overnight.
Team members also had to plan for whatever needs they might have during the event, Foote said. Most of that planning involved simply having spare parts on hand so they could switch them out if a part failed during the event.
Beckstrom said he thinks the car is only the first step in what will be a growing program at OSU. The use of CNG as a racing fuel is good both for racing and for the American economy, he said. Because of the natural gas industry in the state, he said, OSU is poised to become a leader in the area.
“It just makes all kinds of sense for Stillwater and Oklahoma State to be in the middle of this,” he said. “This is just the beginning for the program at OSU.”