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The Viking Motorsports club is planning to race the car at the Michigan International Raceway this summer.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - PSU mechanical engineering student James Barth stands next to the last gas-powered race car (left) and first all-electric race car built by  Viking Motosports In the club's workshop.Interest is growing in electrified vehicles because of rising gas prices and climate change caused by fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions.

So, it's no surprise that Portland State University engineering students are currently building an all-electric vehicle. The university partnered with Nissan to help launch the program in 2010 and installed the city's first Electric Avenue charging station on its campus.

Some people may be surprised the vehicle is an electric race car planned to compete at the Michigan International Raceway this summer, however. As it turns out, PSU has a student engineering club called Viking Motorsports that was founded in 2003. It is sponsored by the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science and has spent much of its time in the past building gas-powered cars for an annual national competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

"We are one of the smaller clubs. We have 16 active members and compete against school clubs with 60 members. But we all get a lot of hands-on experience, including driving our cars," said James Barth, a PSU mechanical engineering union and club member.

The competition is intended to allow students to tackle complex, real world engineering challenges while still having a good time. The club built an all-electric race car that competed at the Las Vegas Metro Speedway last April. It failed the initial technical inspection and did not run, motivating club members to up their game this year.

"It's not unusual for cars to fail inspections or not run or break. Plus, it was 115 degrees in Las Vegas. Just staying hydrated was a challenge," Barth said.

COURTESY PHOTO: VIKING MOTORSPORTS - The PSU Viking Motorsports engineering students club in Las Vegas with their first all-electric race car.
Last year's effort was also disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions that limited in-person club meetings and even campus access until vaccines became widely available. A lot of the fabrication of the car took place in a garage at a private home.

"It was hard enough to keep up with classes and find the time to work on the car without being able to meet in person to design it," Barth said.

The new car is currently being built where the previous cars were assembled, in a large lab on the fourth floor of the engineering school building located at 1930 S.W. Fourth Ave. It is little more than a metal skeleton right now. But last year's car, as well as a previous gas-powered car in the lab, show it will look something like small Sport Car Club of America spec racers or the midget sprint race cars that used to compete on the oval track at the Alpenrose Dairy.

The lab is also crammed full with tools, electronic parts, new and scrap metal, welding and machining equipment and previously used engines. Hand-built batteries for the electric cars are stacked against one wall.

The club is planning to complete and test its new car in time for the June 15 to 18 competition in Michigan. Completed cars are rolled out of the lab through its large double doors and brought down to the ground floor in an oversized elevator that Barth believes was built to accommodate them when the building was constructed because it already existed. From there they are taken to Portland International Raceway for track testing. The raceway is one of several club sponsors that includes Tektronix, Portland Waterjet and numerous other businesses, families and people.

The concept behind the competition is that a fictional manufacturing company has contracted with a student design team to develop a small Formula-style race car. The prototype is to be evaluated for its potential for production. Those that pass the technical inspection compete against one another to judge their acceleration, handling, braking and reliability.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The frame for the upcoming Viking Motorsports electric vehicle is currently under construction.The idea was inspired in 1979 by an article in Popular Mechanics magazine that proposed a "mini-Indy" race of small Indianapolis 500-style wood race cars powered by five-horsepower Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engines. Although only one such race was actually held, it evolved into an annual competition organized by SEA International, a United States-based professional association and standards developing organization for the engineering profession. Its current Formula SAE competition requires the cars to meet much stricter safety standards and allows them to run more powerful engines, now including battery-powered electric motors.

Viking Motorsports is currently raising funds to complete its new car and cover travel cost to Michigan. Donations can be made through its website where more information — including pictures of previous cars — is available.

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