Racing towards the finish

courtesy of St. Thomas Experimental Vehicle team • The St. Thomas Academy Experimental Vehicle team worked for months designing and building a car that they will race against other urban concept cars in Sonoma, California, this month

courtesy of St. Thomas Experimental Vehicle team • The car is designed for energy efficiency. The team designed it to have the same components as a standard car but it runs on electric power to optimize its efficiency.

St. Thomas Experimental Vehicle Team prepares to race in California.


It fits one person, runs on a lithium battery and only goes an average of 15 miles an hour — to most, this car wouldn’t be considered something worth driving. 

However, for members of the St. Thomas Academy Experimental Vehicle Team, the car is their ticket to another first place. They’ll be competing with it in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas race at Sonoma Raceway in California April 19-22. 


Time to design

Seniors Joe Zirnhelt and Nicholas Kern are on the team that created the car, an electric urban concept vehicle.

For competition, Kern said teams build cars that will be measured on their energy efficiency, choosing from three propulsion systems each year: hydrogen fuel cell, battery or internal combustion, meaning gasoline or diesel power.

The team competes nationally, and if it wins its division in California — it’s a part of the Americas, with the other divisions being Europe and Asia — the team will travel to London for international competition.

As part of the urban concept division, the car must be street legal by having things like turn signals and seat belts. 

“Each year we try to build a new one, if not already reusing the one from before,” Kern said. “Essentially, our goal for each year after that is to be more efficient than the year prior.”

This year’s car is one of the most aerodynamic vehicles the team has built. Kern said overall, it’s just a better car, but come next year the team will be trying to build an even more efficient model.

A lot of the design is done by two team members who use Computer Aided Design programs. Zirnhelt said they use the CAD program to design the specifications of the car based on competition rules. 

“It’s really cool because they can use those CAD programs to put them into other programs on the computer,” Zirnhelt said, using computer modeling to test the car design’s aerodynamics. 


Building the car 

The St. Thomas team has been around for some two decades, and technological changes have streamlined the building process, but it’s still quite involved.

The team is able to computer test enough things to know if the car design is going to work, before actually putting it together.

“It’s a lot easier to fix things at that stage because you just scrap the model. Once you print it out and start with foam and making molds, it takes a long time,” Zirnhelt said, pointing out the building process takes months.

One mistake could take weeks or months to fix, Kern added.

Once the design is finalized, Kern said a program takes two-inch sections of the car and prints them out onto large sheets of paper. The team then traces the parts onto polyurethane foam, which is glued together as the vehicle takes shape.

From there, a lot of sanding is done to achieve smooth edges. Next, Kern said fiber glass and carbon fiber layups are put on to get to the final product.

In the flow of each year of competition, the process begins at the end of summer and isn’t done until around March or April.

Caroline Little, an adviser of the team, said work on the body can be done by around January, thanks to the computer modeling — former methods of putting together the car, based on pencil-sketched plans, were problematic.

“There were so many times when I started off with the team that we’d just have to throw everything into the garbage,” Little said.


A learning experience

Kern said the most challenging part of the build is when components don’t fit together the first time.

“When things are designed independently, you just aren’t sure that’s going to happen,” Mark Westlake, another team adviser, said. 

All four agreed the most rewarding part is when it all goes together and everything works.

“Getting that first valid run in for me always feels like ‘Yes!’” Little said.

The team gives students real-world experience in engineering. 

Kern said his father and brother are both engineers and he wants to follow in their footsteps. Being a part of the experimental vehicle team provides different engineering experiences so he has an idea of what to expect when he reaches college.

Zirnhelt said when he was younger, his grandfather was involved in the program. 

“Ever since then, I knew I wanted to go to St. Thomas so I could be part of this,” Zirnhelt said, adding being part of the team brings him closer to his own engineering goals.

Being on the team has taught Kern the importance of patience and perseverance. He said if they got annoyed by the smallest things, they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere.

Little said she likes to see the team learn through failure. There was a mechanical breakdown in London in 2016, which she described as heartbreaking, but the team was resilient.

“One of the students looked at the car and said ‘Well, I guess we know what not to do next year,’” Little said. 


For updates as to how the team does in California, visit or


– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or

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