Soichiro Honda Cup 2018 Honda Eco Mileage Challenge 38th National Competition
Teams and event organizers earnestly compete not to waste a single drop of gasoline
Event staff take the utmost care in filling tanks with official race fuel.
A participant checks the fuel tank he receives from staff. Teams are allowed to ask for a new tank.
At the official fuel dispensary, glass tanks injected with a strictly measured 180cc of gasoline stand in array.
The gasoline’s weight is measured with a digital scale. This weight is recorded as the pre-race volume.
On September 29, 2018, machines of various shapes make their way over the 2.4-kilometer oval track at the Twin Ring Motegi superspeedway. This is the final race in the 38th national competition of the Soichiro Honda Cup 2018 Honda Eco Mileage Challenge.
With a typhoon approaching, the weather is unpredictable on the day of the race; a cold drizzle starts and stops and starts again. Each pit area of the 356 competing teams buzzes with excitement as the participants hurry about attaching splatter guards and putting other finishing touches on their machines.
Between checking in and the start of the race, each team must pass through several check points within the allotted time, including receiving and measuring their fuel and getting their vehicle inspected. Amidst the hustle and bustle of both participants and event staff, there’s one place where the conversation is quiet and solemn: the station where teams pick up their fuel tank.
The “official fuel” used in this race is gasoline prepared by the event organizers. Each team receives a glass tank injected with exactly 180 cubic centimeters of gasoline using a pipette and syringe. Some teams, however, ask to switch their tank for a new one. In this race, it’s the volume of gasoline in the tank that separates the winners from the losers. Although gasoline volumes are strictly measured, if participants have even the slightest doubt, they’re allowed to replace it.
The tanks are sealed with a stopper, of course, but participants carry them ever-so-carefully on the walk back to the pit. They then mount it securely to their car, and the pit comes alive again as they make their way to vehicle inspection.
The race gets underway
Of all the pre-race checkpoints, the most difficult to pass is the vehicle inspection. Teams must pass inspection by the time specified in the schedule, so a long line forms. A few teams unable to pass inspection in one go — did they not do enough to prepare? — can be seen frantically modifying their vehicle.
In most motor-sport inspections, vehicles are judged entirely on certain numerical limits or the use of designated parts required by regulations. However, the Eco Mileage Challenge follows somewhat unusual inspection methods. For example, the brake check requires the team to lift a plate to create a slope, and if the vehicle can stop on the slope, it passes. In the rearview check, if the driver can read numbers on a piece of paper through the side mirrors, it passes. And so on.
Such inspection methods are a creative way of opening the doors of the race to as many people as possible, so that all teams can do their own inspection without having to purchase expensive instruments.
Eventually, the start flag is waved and the race begins. For competing teams, the race is a long 40 minutes or so. Maintaining an average speed of at least 25 kilometers per hour, they must travel seven laps, or about 16 kilometers, around the track.
Every team comes to the race having built a machine that represents their best effort in minimizing its weight, air resistance, and rolling resistance. Believing in the machine their team built, each driver steers it along the shortest course possible. To achieve further fuel savings, some drivers turn off their engine and coast, rolling forward on momentum alone and without using gasoline. In contrast with the noise of the pit area, on the track the race unfolds within a striking quietness that, for observers, underscores the drivers’ level of concentration.
A few teams, however, experience mechanical issues and stall just moments after the race starts. Knowing what it must feel like to put a year’s hard work into preparing for today, the organizers offer the opportunity for such teams to start over.
During inspection, teams check the brakes by creating an 11-degree slope. Vehicles that roll off without stopping fail the test.
The wave of a start flag commences this 7-lap, roughly 16-kilometer race. It takes about 40 minutes to finish.
Designed for maximum fuel efficiency, vehicles are barely large enough to fit a driver.
A concerned track marshal looks in on a vehicle that broke down during the race
Teams that fail to start at all head back to make repairs, and those that break down after start can perform emergency first aid on the shoulder of the track. Event staff and even the track marshals can be seen checking in on the repair operation and offering advice on how to get going again.
The outcome of days of designing and building for fuel efficiency go down in race history
To conserve gasoline, most teams roll slowly and quietly over the finish line, moving by momentum alone.
The post-race gasoline amount is measured and recorded after the finish.
To measure gasoline volume, the fuel tank is carefully detached from the machine.
The race results are posted on a bulletin board. Whether the team met their fuel efficiency target is as important as what place they finished in.
After using all of the skills to drive through the requisite seven laps, each team finishes the race in turn. Most teams simply coast, slowly and quietly, over the finish line. Their reluctance to use gasoline is manifest in their speed to the very end. After driving in the same posture for 40 minutes, drivers can’t immediately step out of the vehicle, so their teammates rush up and pat them on the back as a gesture of gratitude. Smiles exchanged between driver and teammates evoke feelings of accomplishment.
Immediately after the finish, the fuel tank is removed and the fuel measured. The difference between pre- and post-race gasoline volumes is used to measure amount consumed, from which the fuel economy is calculated and the finishing place determined. When the list of fuel economies and finishing places of the respective teams is posted on the scoreboard, teams respond with emotions ranging from jubilation to disappointment. They seem to have forgotten the rain as they check the scores, a result of their great efforts.
In addition to fuel economy, the results board also includes record of the number of laps and race time measured by the transponder (sensor) attached to the vehicles. These results, recorded through the combined effort of the nearly 400 teams and all the event staff who supported them, are once again etched into the race’s history as each team’s “official record.”
The winner of Group 1 is Technology and Fabrication Department, Shiba Gakuen (Shiba Junior High School), which ran a “student-led” project of preparing their vehicle.
The winner of Group 2 four years in a row is Shimofusa High School Automotive Club. “We set a better record than last year, but improving fuel efficiency is still challenging.”
Automotive Engineering Department of the National Institute of Technology, Hachinohe College were the champions of Group 3. “Everyone put in their best effort so we’re happy to have won.”
Honda Technical College Kanto, which raced in Honda’s traditional Championship White color, finished in fourth place, beating their target.