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Formula Hybrid races highlight technical car designs and future job prospects 

  • The Milwaukee School of Engineering team fuels up for the endurance event during the annual Formula Hybrid competition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Thursday, May 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Milwaukee School of Engineering driver Nick Vang gets a push from University of Vermont team members after his car stopped during the annual Formula Hybrid competition in 2016.


Monday, May 01, 2017

You know the joke that says high school kids do interesting stuff only because it looks good on their college transcripts?

This same jest exists in college with one twist: Employers are the target.

And while neither joke is entirely true, they’re not entirely false, either.

A case in point is happening this week at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where the 12th annual Formula Hybrid engineering contest is underway. Teams from colleges around the world are racing hybrid or electric cars that they’ve built from scratch because it’s cool and interesting and educational ... and excellent resume material.

“Getting recruited wasn’t the whole purpose – but it is a great opportunity to talk to professionals in the industry, find out what it’s like,” said Margaux LeBlanc, who was one of the captains of Dartmouth College’s Formula Hybrid team last year and now works for General Motors as an associate systems engineer in electrified vehicles.

GM is one of several car companies that help sponsor Formula Hybrid and openly troll the speedway for up-and-coming engineers, project managers and mechanics.

“We recognize the value of the skills that the students who come to those competitions bring,” said Alba Colon, GM’s lead recruiter for the series. “We have been pretty much involved since day No. 1 as a sponsor.”

Dartmouth, whose Thayer School of Engineering created Formula Hybrid in 2006 and runs it, are happy to tout the connection with car companies – they suggested this column and found the interview subjects for me. Dartmouth knows that post-graduation employment is a big selling point for prospective students, not to mention their checkbook-toting parents.

Formula Hybrid is an offshoot of decades-old contest, overseen by the Society for Automotive Engineers, in which schools design, build and race half-sized formula cars (a category with open wheels and other elements that differ from NASCAR’s stock cars).

When Formula Hybrid started, the Prius was still very new, but the contest’s founders could see was that hybrid gas-electric drivetrains were going to become more important, and it behooved their students to learn more about them.

When I covered the first Formula Hybrid race, half the teams’ cars couldn’t even run – a reflection of how much more complicated it is to build a vehicle with both electric drive and gasoline drive than a vehicle with use one or the other. (Formula Hybrid has since developed a category for electric-only vehicles.)

The racers have gotten better since then as the technology has become established, but Formula Hybrid remains a tough contest.

“It is quite a challenge to integrate mechanical and electrical,” said Maura Chmielowiec, who was on the Formula Hybrid team for Rochester Institute of Technology and now works for GM as a front compartment integration design engineer.

“I make sure that everybody who is designing parts – they all fit together, there’s no interference,” she said.

That’s exactly the sort of skill that hybrid racing requires.

“The integration of electrical (and) mechanical, is highly intense, something that college students really grapple with,” she said. “There’s something else to balance, and with electric there’s a whole new level of safety you have to uncover to make it work.”

It says something that major sponsors of Formula Hybrid include not just GM, Ford, Toyota and Fiat/Chrysler but also the software firm Mathworks; carbon-fiber material company Fiber Glast; and Bender, which specializes in electrical safety equipment including ground fault detectors.

But the contest’s complexity doesn’t just come from nuts, bolts, wires and batteries.

“I’d been watching it for years. It was so much harder than what I thought,” said LeBlanc, who first came to Loudon to see the contest when she was a high school student in Maine because she liked cars and building things.

“When you go to the competition and watch, everyone’s working really hard, they seem unified, the cars look finished. You don’t see the whole picture starting from scratch, the way people not always being available to work, you don’t see the project management side, you don’t see the fundraising side ... you miss a lot of what the competition is all about.”

Fundraising – ugh, right?

“No, it makes it fun,” she insisted.

Twenty teams, including three from India, began the competition at this year’s Formula Hybrid on Monday. They will wrap up Thursday after a host of events, from sprints and long-distance driving to static presentations reflecting design and project management.

Some will fail completely, and some will succeed beyond their wildest dreams; some will get trophies, and some will get oil all over themselves; some will make mechanical breakthroughs; and some will get shocked by wires they didn’t realize were live.

And they’ll all get something cool to put on the future resume.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)