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Willmar, Minn., Supermileage team coasts to first-ever first place finish

Supermileage team members: Colton Swenson, from left, Aaron Fuchs, Andy Thorpe, getting into the car, Matt Miner, Alex Norling and Jacob Ackerman placed first in the Minnesota Technology and Engineering Educators Association Supermileage Challenge.?The boys are pictured at top with their trophy. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Six students at Willmar Senior High developed a car that took first place in the Minnesota Technology and Engineering Educators Association Supermileage Challenge this year.

The low-slung, bright red, single passenger car had the best average mileage -- 644.3 mpg -- in a field of 105 cars at the competition May 14-15 at the Brainerd International Raceway.

This is the first time Willmar has won the challenge in its 15 years of competing. Willmar teams have had a number of second-place and third-place finishes.

Willmar won in the stock car category and had better average mileage than any cars in the modified, E-85 and experimental categories.

The competition also has an electric car division.

All of the team members were in their first year in the program.

Team members said they thought they had finished somewhere in the top three but didn't know they had won until the official results were announced at the end of the competition.

"It feels like a big accomplishment," said junior Aaron Fuchs. The team brought home a wooden and brass traveling trophy which will stay at Willmar Senior High for the next year. The school will also receive a plaque to keep.

Teacher Mike Kroeker said he thinks this year's team will provide a good core for next year, as they will lose just one team member to graduation, Alex Norling. He recruited team members from his introduction to engineering design and other engineering classes at the school.

Team members said they used knowledge from their classes in drafting and design, engineering and small engines.

The team used last year's car, which is allowed, but they had to make substantial modifications.

Team members worked after school and on weekends to redo the wiring, do body work, add a five-point harness for the driver, put on new tires and give the car a new coat of paint.

"This is a good group of kids," Kroeker said as the team gathered around their car for a photo. The car was on display in the school's commons area last week.

The team drove the car through 20 two-lap runs around the Brainerd track. It was the highest number of successful runs in the competition.

The high mileage is achieved by a technique that wouldn't be suitable for anywhere but the track. Drivers start by accelerating up to 30 mph, then shut off the engine and coast until their speed is 10 to 15 mph. Then they start the engine and accelerate.

Kroeker said a driver's skill contributes to the mileage, along with weather conditions and lots of luck. "It's more about how you drive it and how you understand the track," Kroeker said.

Teammates will often step aside to let the better drivers make more runs, because it brings up the team's average score, Kroeker said. The team's best run this year was 783.06 mpg.

The team members said junior Andy Thorpe was the top driver, followed by sophomore Matt Miner and sophomore Jacob Ackerman.

All of the team members got a chance to drive in Brainerd except freshman Colton Swenson, who doesn't have a driver's license. The Brainerd track does not allow driving without a license. Next year he'll be able to take his turn behind the wheel, he said.

Kroeker said the trophy and title belong to this year's team but also to everyone who has worked with the program over the years. More than 120 students have been involved over the life of the program in Willmar. A number of instructors and mentors have worked with the teams, and area businesses have donated money and materials.

"You learn a little something every year," he said.

This year's team "fought all the way" after ending the first day of competition in second place. "The car functioned very well," while some other teams encountered mechanical problems, he said. "Other years, we've had everything you can think of go wrong."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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