An Electrifying Victory!

Published Jun. 18, 2012

The captain of the winning e-dragster team is aptly named Ferrari. The driver of the speedy electric vehicle had raced cars and motorcycles as a little girl.

The duo was part of the all-female Women in Engineering@RIT Hot Wheelz team that went 100 meters in just under six seconds to win the first e-dragster race at this year’s Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival on May 5 at Rochester Institute of Technology.

The electric-vehicle drag race, a challenge presented by RIT President Bill Destler to showcase alternative vehicles, kicked off the festival. WE@RIT Hot Wheelz was one of a dozen alternative energy vehicles that sped down the course at the event.

“This is amazing. We kept tweaking and tweaking the car the last few weeks. It really paid off,” says Natalie Ferrari, a mechanical engineering major from Greensburg, Pa., and team captain. Ferrari led a nine-member team of mechanical, electrical and industrial engineering undergraduates in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering.

“When it came down to it, this was not a team of just women. Granted, I know it was unique, and that’s what set us apart from the other racers, but we’re a team of engineers,” she adds.

The team built the non-traditional vehicle using a lightweight go-cart chassis with six absorbed glass mat, or AGM-lead-acid batteries wired in series, to power the 72-volt, 10-horsepower motor. The batteries chosen are considered advantageous for high speeds required by racing vehicles, and they can be recharged quickly. The team also machined original parts in the engineering college’s machine shop and built a unique start/stop system—a contactor that turned on the high current circuit, wired to a button switch mounted on the steering wheel. They also had a back-up emergency stop-system—two battery charging cable connectors that could be pulled apart by the driver to disconnect power.

“It was a great group dynamic, and we all relied on each other,” driver Maura Chmielowiec says. “Without our leader Natalie, it wouldn’t have been possible because she just kept everybody together and always kept a positive attitude.”

Ferrari will graduate this May and begin a doctoral program in biomedical engineering at Drexel University in Pennsylvania.

“The project was a huge undertaking in a short period of time with most of the team members having no ‘automotive build’ experience, so there was a steep learning curve,” says Kathleen Lamkin-Kennard, associate professor of mechanical engineering. She and Jodi Carville, director of Women in Engineering, acted as advisors and mentors to the team. “The team utilized the engineering design process throughout the project to stay focused on the team goal to be a serious contender.”

On the day of the race, Chmielowiec revved up at the starting line and reached a top speed of 58 miles-per-hour along the track. “Coming into this I really had no knowledge of electrical vehicles,” says the first-year mechanical engineering major from Batavia, Genesee County. “Now I can explain the circuitry like it’s the back of my hand. Doing this, I got to see that my mechanical engineering knowledge can be paired with electrical to create something really great—and absolutely fast!”

The team chose an antique banjo from Destler’s personal collection instead of $1,000 for the grand prize, saying the banjo was a trophy in itself—something they could keep and display to remember the victory.

The WE@RIT Hot Wheelz team is Heather Beam (fourth-year mechanical engineering), Sarah Brown (first-year mechanical engineering), Maura Chmielowiec (first-year mechanical engineering), Natalie Ferrari (fifth-year mechanical engineering), Rachele Floeser (first-year industrial and systems engineering), Camila Gomez Serrano (first-year mechanical engineering), Aurora Kiehl (fourth-year mechanical engineering), Margurita Rincon (second-year mechanical engineering) and Olivia Robertson (second-year electrical engineering).