High school students go green for Energy Invitational race car competition

Kirin Kunkle, 17, with the Huntington Beach High School Oilers electric race car team, takes a test drive.
Kirin Kunkle, 17, with the Huntington Beach High Oilers electric race car team, takes a test drive as his team watches on Wednesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)
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The formula is uniform for every group, and simple enough: 10 million, divided by (watt hours times total seconds).

This efficiency equation will ultimately determine the winner of Saturday’s annual Vital Link Energy Invitational electric car race.

Twenty-six high school teams from Orange County and Long Beach have been tasked with building the most efficient electric car they can. Their cars were inspected last weekend, and it’s all been leading up to race day Saturday morning at Parking Lot 70 at UC Irvine.


The high school race, in its 12th year, was canceled in 2019-20 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last school year, teams were judged on their design element only, and Estancia High took home the top prize.

But the teams will be back on track racing this year for the competition, originally created by UC Irvine engineering professor Michael McCarthy. Vital Link senior program director Neda Arab said Estancia is entering a car again this year, while teams from Huntington Beach and Ocean View high schools are also among the local competitors.

Vital Link, which has helped put on the race since the beginning, is a Tustin-based nonprofit dedicated to providing students experiential learning opportunities.

“We love that the kids are so passionate,” Arab said. “That’s why this is so important, because we want to provide programs where the kids are encouraged to work on their passions. We knew that we had to bring this competition back as soon we got the green light from the districts and schools to have in-person events. So this spring, we brought it back.”

The Huntington Beach High School Oilers electric race car team poses for a picture Wednesday.
The Huntington Beach High School Oilers electric race car team, from left to right: Cooper Headley, Corey Sand, Joshua Dang, Lucas Ruebsamen, Brayden Matejka, Dylan Zazueta and driver Kirin Kunkle.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

As one might imagine, preparations for the race have come down to the wire. The group from Huntington Beach, advised by HBHS physics teacher Ray Egan, has been meeting in the family garage of junior Lucas Ruebsamen since December.

About half of the entrants have elected to use a standard Formula 24 car design, but the team from Huntington Beach decided to do its own thing. They also split up into three distinct units: engineering, business administration and documentation/testing.

Lucas has done much of the software coding for the project. The group of about 10 students has also utilized several 3D printers for some of the equipment onboard — including the joystick used to drive the car. Lucas’ father, Gene, a former engineer, has also helped the kids in their designs and calculations.

The Huntington Beach High entry will be driven by Kirin Kunkle, another junior. Industrial Metal Supply donated a good amount of metal for the project, said Kirin, who handled welding most of the aluminum together.

Lucas and Kirin are president and vice president, respectively, of the HBHS 3D Printing club.

Their car is relatively light compared to the competition at about 120 pounds, Kirin said. He hopes it will be the most efficient during four race heats.

The project has gone through at least two other iterations before focusing on the current design, Lucas said. One of them involved disassembling a wooden fence and putting together what he called a “really bad” frame.

Kirin Kunkle, 17, with the Huntington Beach High electric race car team takes off his helmet following a test drive.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

But the students have learned from their trial and error.

“If you look at most of the competition, they’re running with one motor driver,” student engineer Dylan Zazueta said. “They’re running an axle, running two wheels usually, or they’ll have one-wheel drive. We actually have two separate motor drivers, with two separate chain links, too. We’re trying to put some different ingenuity into the competition.”

Costa Mesa residents Phillip Chipman and Robert Smith serve as judges for the event. Each has been involved for years; Chipman once won a previous version of the contest that was open to all types of vehicles.

Changing the rules to electric vehicles only and involving high school students also has been rewarding for Chipman, a retired engineer.

“I enjoy seeing what the students come up with and helping them with their engineering skills,” he said. “Since the race is on efficiency, you don’t want to go maximum speed because you burn up all your fuel. Well, in this case, all of your electricity, your kilowatt hours and your energy. It’s a balancing game. How much energy do I use to win, to get the maximum number of points?”

The answer will be determined Saturday morning.

It all comes back to the formula.

Kirin Kunkle, 17, with the Huntington Beach High School Oilers electric race car team takes a test drive on Wednesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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