The sounds get louder as you approach the room where Leigh Hartert oversees the Supermileage Challenge team at Eden Prairie High School.
Metal tools clanking. Power tools humming. Classmates chattering back and forth.
The smells that fill the air become stronger too. A lovely aroma of paint mixed with motor fuel that anyone who enjoys working on engines and cars can appreciate.
When you walk into the room, the sights match the sounds and smells. Supermileage cars from years past hang from the ceiling. Small engines and their various parts lay across tables. A student, clad in a protective plastic suit, spray paints a car while other students bustle about working on their own mini-vehicles.
It’s a young gearhead’s paradise. It’s also a fun way to start the school day.
The objective of the Supermileage Challenge is to build the most fuel-efficient vehicle possible and travel as far as you can on one gallon of fuel.
The 26th Supermileage Challenge is May 13-14 at Brainerd International Raceway (BIR). The Minnesota Corn Growers Association is once again sponsoring the event, which helps middle- and high-school students understand the benefits of homegrown ethanol use in small engines.
Sean MulQueeny knew he wanted to give Supermileage a try when he saw the mini-vehicles on display at Eden Prairie High School.
“It takes time and patience, but it’s worth it,” MulQueeny said while working on a car that will run in the stock class. “Some teams do this year-round. Here, we have one-and-a-half quarters to get our work in.”
Hartert said that Supermileage is at the top level of of the curriculum and comes after students complete lower-level problem solving and engineering types of courses.There are 32 students building five cars on this year’s Eden Prairie team, including an E85 car (E85 is fuel blend of 85 percent homegrown ethanol and 15 percent gasoline).
“There’s a place for everybody,” Hartert said. “We have some students interested in robotics, some in engineering, some in design. We pride ourselves on doing as much as we can in-house. Even if what we build ends up not being the best, we know it was our work. We’ll try to learn what we can, do better, and come back again next time.”
Hartert said he encourages students to bring their own ideas to the design and construction of the cars. Just because he’s helped build 68 Supermileage cars since 1999, it doesn’t mean he knows everything.
“It’s the mindset of learning vs. teaching,” he said. “That’s the beauty of technology. A student might see something on YouTube and come in and want to see if it might work on the car. You have an idea, I have an idea. Let’s try to make it work.”
Russell Thompson wants to go into engineering and worked on Eden Prairie’s E85 car last year.
“It’s a good fuel,” he said. “Working on the different types of engines presents different challenges.”
Last year 11 schools competed in the E85 division. Other divisions include modified, electric, exhibition, experimental and stock. Eden Prairie enters a car in each division.
Eden Prairie is one of many teams that camp out at BIR the night before Supermileage Challenge opens. It gives students a chance to make last-minute adjustments to their cars and bond further with teammates.
Competitions similar to the Supermileage Challenge are held throughout the country each year. Mileages recorded at the Brainerd event are often higher than at college competitions. In addition to learning about ethanol, small engines, problem-solving and teamwork, students also dip their toes into the business world.
It costs money to build the cars and travel to competitions. Students work with local businesses on sponsorships and come up with other ways to raise funds.
Yes, it’s a lot of work and major commitment, but the participants say it’s worth it and a fun and challenging twist on traditional coursework or extra-curricular activities.
“I heard about Supermileage a long time ago from my brother talking about it,” said Chris Backlund, in his second year on Eden Prairie’s team. “I knew I had to give it a shot. The last thing I wanted was to regret not doing it.”