Ohio State's Electric Land-Speed Racer is Down to the Wire

By · June 28, 2013

Buckeye Bullet III

Amanda Belding (left) and Mary Carson are helping build the Buckeye Bullet III, just a bare chassis at the moment. (Jim Motavalli photo)

COLUMBUS, OHIO—“Just 39 days to go!” Amanda Belding, who’s doing the countdown until her electric race car is ready to hit the Utah salt flats, is a junior here on the sprawling campus of Ohio State University, home to 60,000 students.

Belding’s major may be “in flux,” but she’s found her niche at the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), which hosts 35,000 square feet of labs and garage space to let students get down and greasy with all manner of alternative power vehicles. “I came here not knowing anything about cars,” she said. “I love learning about how they work.” And how. Under her name on the master job board: getting the battery harness together and “finding all eight wheels and tires.”

This isn't classroom learning, but it's hugely valuable anyway. "There is no better teacher than confronting and solving real-world problems as a member of a motorsports/student project team," I was told by Don Butler, an OSU research projects manager.

Buckeye Bullet II

Just the bodyshell survives of Buckeye Bullet II. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Speed Racers

Electric vehicles rule at CAR, fast ones. The battery-powered Buckeye Bullet III is a would-be electric land speed record car, and during my visit—indeed, 39 days until Bonneville—it was just a bare chassis, waiting for high-tech parts coming in from all over the world. But don’t worry, they’ve done this last-minute thing before, and come home with the gold. The first Buckeye Bullet, nickel-metal-hydride battery powered, set a U.S. record at 314 mph (and a world record for the mile at 271 mph) in 2004.

Buckeye II was hydrogen fuel-cell powered, and set world records at 307 mph in 2007. Buckeye III, with 2,000 lithium phosphate cells, is going for both U.S. and world speed records in August and September under the watchful supervision of the legendary Southern California Timing Association. The team will go for 373 mph and the U.S. record during August’s Speedweek at Bonneville, then 435 mph for the world record next year.

Begging and Borrowing $2 Million

According to David Cooke, the graduate student team leader, one reason for the last-minute build is the Buckeye Team’s constant scrounging for $2 million worth of free parts from sponsors to complete the $4 million car.

A123 (now to be known as B456, apparently) supplied the latest generation batteries, put together in a 90 kilowatt-hour pack that will drain in 60 seconds during the record attempt. “If everything is going well, we’ll be out of power in just over one minute,” Cooke said. “It’s a tough game to play—you’re constantly balancing adding power versus keeping the weight down.”

LEAFs charging at CAR

LEAFs charging at OSU's CAR in Columbus. There are five GE chargers for visitors. (Jim Motavalli photo)

North of 2,000 Horsepower

Cooke guesses that the Bullet will put out 1,600 kilowatts or 2,250 horsepower. It’s definitely a guess, because the electric motors (two per axle) are in transit from France and CAR collaborator Venturi Automobiles, the unusual French company that has made postal vans, round-the-world endurance vehicles, Antarctic explorers and Tesla-type sports cars. The transmissions are on a boat from England.

“I’m totally confident we’ll be running under our own power in 39 days,” Cooke said. If so, CAR has the perfect driver in Roger Schroer, a professional tester at Honda’s Transportation Research Center (which boasts a seven-mile high-speed oval). Schroer is one of only 60 people worldwide to have exceeded 300 mph at the wheel.

On the day, Schroer will launch the Buckeye III on an 11-mile course, with the measured mile coming at the six-mile mark. It will be a gallant test of what batteries can do.

Two Wheels and Four

World speed record cars are getting attention again. The bestselling novel The Flamethrowers has a Bonneville attempt as a subplot. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum just before the Indy 500 this year, I saw Craig Breedlove’s famous Spirit of America/Sonic 1 car, which broke the 600-mph barrier in 1965. But that car was jet-powered; it didn’t achieve its speed record on lithium batteries.

Buckeye Current team

The OSU team that built the race-winning Buckeye Current. (OSU photo)

And it should be pointed out that CAR is also about motorcycles. Its electric Buckeye Current just came in third in its first-ever TT Zero appearance at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) race, hitting an average speed of 90.4 mph. OSU students built the cycle with just $50,000. OSU had the only student team in the race.

On video, racer Roger Schroer talks about the upcoming land speed record attempt:

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