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  • 7/27/2019 INGENIOUS by JASON FAGONE--Excerpt


  • 7/27/2019 INGENIOUS by JASON FAGONE--Excerpt

  • 7/27/2019 INGENIOUS by JASON FAGONE--Excerpt


    i ngen ious

    A True Stor y of Invent ion,Automotive Daring, and the

    Race to Revive America

    Jason Fagone

  • 7/27/2019 INGENIOUS by JASON FAGONE--Excerpt


    Copyright 2013 by Jason Fagone

    All rights reserved.Published in the United States by Crown Publishers,

    an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group,

    a division of Random House LLC,

    a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

    CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks

    of Random House LLC.

    Library of Congress Cataloging- in-Publication Data

    Fagone, Jason.

    Ingenious : a true story of invention, automotive daring, and the

    race to revive America / Jason Fagone.

    pages cm

    1. AutomobilesEnergy consumptionResearchUnited States.

    2. AutomobilesEnergy consumptionTechnological innovations

    United States. 3. AutomobilesDesign and constructionCompetitions

    United States. 4. InventorsUnited States. 5. Creative abilityUnited

    States. 6. Industrial development projects

    United States. I. Title.

    TL151.6F34 2013

    629.222dc23 2013023442

    ISBN 978-0-307-59148-7

    eISBN 978-0-307-59150-0

    Printed in the United States of America

    Images on the proceeding pages are courtesy of the following contributors:

    page 19 courtesy of Joshua Spradlin; 45 and 263 courtesy of Brad Jaeger;

    99 from the collections of The Henry Ford; 102 courtesy of Ron Mathis;

    119, 225, and 227 courtesy of Ann Cohen; 162 and 344 courtesy of Jen

    Danzinger; 175 courtesy of Kevin Smith; and 367 courtesy of Edison2.

    Book design by Barbara Sturman

    Jacket design by Keenan

    Jacket illustration courtesy of Edison2

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

    First Edition

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    A Nation of Inventors

    Aew years ago, in the post-bailout gloom

    o the Great Recession, I saw a story in

    the news that stuck. A oundation in Cali-

    ornia was oering a large cash bounty toanyone who could make a sae, practical,

    100-mile-per-gallon car. Gas prices were

    going up, oil reserves were going down,

    the planet was baking; something had to

    be done. The oundation had raised $10 million, and now it was

    dangling the money rom a string. Hit the target, win a piece o

    the jackpot. The Automotive X Prize it was called. Big companies

    could enter, but so could lone inventors and garage hackers and

    start-ups. Size didnt matter, only the quality o the machine.

    Im not a car person. When I was a kid, I used to read Car

    and Driverand Motor Trendwith my ather, a longtime chemist at

    DuPont. He was the kind o guy who secretly coveted a sports car

    but always went or the responsible amily sedan instead. I liked toclip out pictures o uturistic concept cars, high-mileage pods made

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    2 g u

    Ive long orgotten. I drive a 2002 Honda Accord and have the oil

    changed at the dealer, and when I get behind the wheel, I dont

    want to think about whats happening under the hood. Im thirty-

    ve with a wie and a young daughter and a small stack o Ra

    CDs in the ront. I just want the thing to work.

    Still, the idea o the Prize resonated with me. The psychol-

    ogy o itusing a bald appeal to human greed to achieve an ide-

    alistic goalmade a lot o sense. I you want to get a job done,

    you pay or it, right? And the oundations interest in small inven-

    tors seemed more than justied by the recent economic catastro-phe. The big guys had ailed us in America. Wall Street, General

    Motorsour rich elites had blown up the economy, and now they

    were sucking down billions in taxpayer bailouts. I read that Henry

    Fords Model T got 20 miles to the gallon. That was in 1908. A

    century later, the average new car in America got 21 miles per gal-

    lon. It was hardly crazy to think that a tiny, nimble company, or

    even a tinkerer in a garage, could design a more ecient car thanGM. It seemed important, actually, to go looking.

    Soon I was poring over every article on the X Prize I could

    nd, and the more I learned, the more legitimate it appeared. The

    sponsor was the solid, reputable Progressive Insurance Company.

    The CEO o the oundation was a physician and successul entre-

    preneur. He insisted the cars had to be real. They could run on

    electricity, hydrogen, gasoline, ethanol, steam, or some amazing

    new uel as yet unknown, but, according to the rules o the X

    Prize, they had to be production-capable and designed to reach

    the marketno concept cars, no science projects that would dis-

    appear beneath tarps ater the contest was over. They had to seat

    at least two large people comortably, a large person being dened

    as an adult male in the 95th percentile o height and weight: sixeet two inches tall, 215 pounds. Thats just the slightest bit smaller

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    A Nation of Inventors 3

    about a particular car had to be able to gure out how to drive it

    within ten minutes. Grandma had to be able to drive it.

    In early 2010, I reached out to several teams. One was a group

    o garage hackers in an Illinois corneld. A second was a team o

    sports-car racers rom Lynchburg, Virginia. A third was a group o

    students and teachers at an inner-city high school. A ourth was

    a start-up company in Southern Caliornia. For the most part,

    theyd all been working on their cars since the Prize was rst

    announced, in 2007, and now they were ready to test them, in a

    series o increasingly rigorous competition stages throughout thespring and summer at a NASCAR track in rural Michigan.

    I started traveling around the country, meeting racers, robot-

    builders, and a guy who designed stealth bombers and called him-

    sel Aero Man, and it wasnt long beore Id dropped most o my

    other reelance journalism work to ocus on the Prize. Watching

    the teams prepare their cars or the track, I elt more hopeul than

    Id elt in years: In the thick o the worst economic unk since theGreat Depression, here were all these people working uriously in

    garages and warehouses and barns, trying to hit a series o stagger-

    ingly dicult targets that no government, automaker, or inventor

    had ever achieved.

    In April, June, and July, I ollowed the teams to Michigan,

    where they battled each other with millions on the line. Then,

    ater the competition phase o the Prize was over, I continued to

    visit them or the next three years, well into 2013. Partly it was

    simple curiosity. I knew their story wouldnt end with the Prize;

    it wouldnt end until the market either accepted or rejected their

    ideas. I wanted to write a real history o their eort. I wanted to

    know what would happen next. Would the automakers court them

    or ignore them? Could a handul o inventors shape a powerulindustry?

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    4 g u

    now, I was convinced that their story spoke to something larger

    than the uture o cars.

    Over the last hal century, as the American economy has shited

    toward knowledge work

    as the actories that used to sustain cit-

    ies like Detroit and Baltimore and Philadelphia have died, leaving

    vast swaths o poor and minority kids without access to jobs; as

    Wall Street has siphoned o a generation o young overachievers

    and put them to work writing algorithms to extract billions rom

    markets; and as other strivers have moved to Silicon Valley to nd

    their ortune by creating the next new viral whatever

    inventingthings that matter in America has increasingly become the province

    o elites. And it didnt used to be this way. We are called the na-

    tion o inventors, Mark Twain said in 1890, and we are. We could

    still claim that title and wear its lotiest honors i we had stopped

    with the rst thing we ever invented, which was human liberty. In

    Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, A new worship I sing / You

    captains, voyagers, explorers, yours / You engineers, you architects,machinists, yours. What excited these guys about invention was

    the democracy o it. Invention as an everyday pursuit, a way o

    using the materials at hand to get along in a raw place and explore

    new terrain. An impulse to scrounge and tinker that would later

    nd its greatest fowering on the Michigan arm o Henry Ford,

    the Ohio bicycle shop o the Wright Brothers, and the Caliornia

    garage o Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who were all anonymous

    nobodies when they began the work that changed the world.

    This is a story o invention in the old sense o the word. This

    is about what people in America are capable o when thrown back

    on their heels, orced to improvise in bad economic weather. Its

    about ordinary men and women whose lives have been trans-

    ormed by a remarkable quest, one that combined elements o theOlympics, NASCAR, Junkyard Wars, the Longitude Prize o 1714,

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    The mentality of the man who

    does things in the world is agile,

    light, and strong.

    The most beautiful things in the

    world are those from which all

    excess weight has been


    Henry Ford,

    My Life and Work

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    Kevin and Jen

    We speed west into a bank o

    mottled clouds and blue-black

    sky and not much else. Wedrip with sweat. The launch

    site is two miles back and

    counting: the barn where the

    light is on and the guys are

    waiting to hear i everythings

    okay. We try to talk to one another, we shout and scream, but our

    words get shredded by motor noise, by a sound like a blender gone

    berserk, whirring and rising to a blasto pitch.

    There are our o us in here: me, a woman named Jen Danz-

    inger, and two men. The men are in ront, ring questions at each

    other in quick bursts. Im in back with Jen. She braces a hand

    against the door. Headlights blaze by in the oncoming lane. I

    wonder how much the other driver noticed

    maybe just a silverybulge, maybe our vehicles whole weird shape. Elongated uselage,

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    8 g u

    Illinois arming counties. Were 220 miles rom Chicago, 100 miles

    rom Champaign, 80 miles rom St. Louis, and only a couple miles

    rom two major U.S. roads. To the northwest is U.S. Route 66, one

    o the rst American highways, built to let drivers bypass little

    arming towns. Around here it happens to be the rontage road, or

    access road, that runs parallel to Interstate 55. I we press our aces

    to the heat-ogged, northwest-acing windows and look beyond the

    rontage road, we can see headlights torquing through the heavy

    blueness on I-55another, bigger highway built in the seventies so

    that no driver would ever have to slow down in Divernon, Illinois.Divernon. An old coal town. The seam tapped out around

    1920. The mine closed, the railroad went out o business, and citi-

    zens drained away to other, more prosperous places. By the nineties,

    so many people had let that it no longer made sense or the town

    to maintain a high school. In a nal humiliation, Divernon began

    shipping its children to a neighboring district seven miles west.

    The market crash o 2008 caused barely a ripple here becausethe pond had been drying out or decades. The Obama stimulus

    bill o 2009 managed to skip across what was let o that pond like

    a smooth, fat rock. The only thing resembling economic stimu-

    lus in this region had come and gone eight years beore, in 2002,

    when the gru old man who owned the hardware/beer/auto-

    parts store in nearby Springeld, the capital o Illinois, only -

    teen miles north o Divernon, hung a closed sign in the window,

    walked back into the dusty recesses o his shop, and shot him-

    sel in the head. When police removed his body and explored the

    building, they ound a stash o strange treasures: a live hand gre-

    nade, a loaded 1955 Smith & Wesson .32 pistol still in its original

    box, and, incredibly, a secret second foor lled with vintage cars

    and motorcycles, including a 1912 Harley-Davidson with an intactcarbide headlight. A rumor went around town that Jay Leno, a

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    Kevin and Jen 9

    top dollar or the Harley just so he could piss Leno o by destroy-

    ing it on his show. When the vehicles were eventually put up or

    auction, two thousand people registered to bid, and an equal num-

    ber showed up just to watch. Two men rom Decatur ended up

    pooling their money to buy the Harley or $80,000.

    Our driver, Kevin Smith, a chemical engineer, suddenly throt-

    tles down. The vehicle judders to a halt.

    Regens kickin in, Jen says.

    Regen is short or regenerative brakes. In an electric vehicle

    like this one, the regen system traps the energy normally wastedduring braking and pumps it back into the battery pack. The

    sound it makes is distinctive: not a screech but sort o a whrr-whrr-

    whrr-RUH, like the sound o Pac-Man getting eaten by a ghost.

    A smell now lls the cabin, plasticky and coppery, and I notice

    Jen making a ace. She isnt an engineer like the men in ront.

    Shes a graphic designer, a programmer, and a onetime creative

    writing major. Over the past our months, whenever somethingabout this vehicle has conused me, Ive gone to Jen or an expla-

    nation, because shes sharp and shes unny and she speaks a lan-

    guage I understand. Her role tonight is to pay attention to sounds

    and smells: every pebble beneath the wheels, every vibration, the

    smell o 800 pounds o batteries cooking away inches rom her

    right thigh. This is a test drive. Diagnosing problems on cars can

    involve all senses, shell tell me later, but I caution against using

    taste. Jen says that smells are particularly revealing. Her descrip-

    tions o automotive smells have a literary quality. Burning oil is

    an easy one: the bluish-black cloud, and a gagging pollution at the

    back o the tongue. Hot brake pads are like hot metal and pencil

    tips that threaten to clog your nose hairs. Leaking antireeze is

    sticky-sweet, like burning maple syrup.Hot batteries are a new one, though. Shell tell me later that

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    10 g u

    Now that were stopped, Jen and I fick the latches at the bot-

    tom o our doors. They open vertically, not horizontally: gullwing

    doors, usually ound in vehicles o outrageous luxury, like high-

    end sports cars. Also the DeLorean rom Back to the Future. I orget

    to hold on to my doors leather handle as it rises, as Ive been

    instructed to do, and it snaps up too quickly, causing a loud bang.

    Kevin Smith raises his eyebrows. He steps out o his seat and

    examines the scratch my door made on the roo.

    Kevin tells us something is wrong with the car. A ew minutes

    ago, it didnt want to shit and made a bad noise and a badsmell. He coners with the reckled, red-bearded man in the shot-

    gun seat, Nate Knappenburger, whos hunched over a laptop.

    With the doors open, we can get our bearings. Theres a eld

    o corn to our let and a eld o soybeans to our right. A summer

    breeze rufes the crops. Its June 2010. Firefies dimple the corn

    with light. The air smells like pollen. The sky is pierced with stars.

    Feels roomy all o a sudden? Kevin says to Jen, his wie.Big pimpin, Jen replies.

    K e v i n a n D Jen have known each other since they were kids.

    They went to the same elementary school, lived in the same town:

    Park Forest, a middle-class suburb o Chicago. Kevins ather man-

    aged a grocery store there. Jens parents were divorced. She lived

    with her mother, who worked as a dental assistant. Their houses

    were a quick bike ride away, which is how, when they were nine,

    they rst got to be riends, despite having nearly opposite person-

    alities. Kevin was engaging and pointy-eared and never stopped

    talking. Jen was slight and private, with green eyes and birdlike

    eatures. But they both sensed they were dierent rom the otherkids; instead o sports, they liked movies and antasy games. At

  • 7/27/2019 INGENIOUS by JASON FAGONE--Excerpt


    Kevin and Jen 11

    the mazes was more un than actually playing the game. Theyd

    see how complex they could make them, putting monsters around

    every corner, adding traps and hidden passages.

    Kevin had never met anyone like Jen. She liked to climb trees

    and catch crawdads in the creek or the pure muddy thrill o it.

    Shed once tried to bloody the nose o a little boy in her class or

    some oul remark, at which point her teacher pulled her o the

    boy and scolded Jen or unladylike behavior. She was cool. She

    wasnt a girlshe wasJen.

    In sixth grade, Kevin handed her a marriage certicate hedbought rom a novelty vending machine at their local arcade. Hed

    taken the liberty o lling out the blanks.

    At rst, Jen didnt know how to process Kevins aection. She

    kept him at a distance until she was sixteen, when she started learn-

    ing how to drive her mothers car. One day, ater school, Kevin

    insisted on walking Jen out to her car, and beore they said good-

    bye, she saw Kevin looking at her. There was something about theway the parking-lot sodium lights illuminated his eyes, she would

    recall later. Suddenly I elt an emotional connection and realized

    Id wasted a lot o time. He was the one.

    They started dating around the time they started working on

    cars together. Their rst project was Jens 1981 AMC Spirit, a clas-

    sic American crapboxone o those small, lumpen hatchbacks

    that American automakers had started to pump out ater the oil

    shocks o the seventies. Because o its powder-blue coat o paint,

    Jen had dubbed it the Smur. It was what she drove to her ater-

    school job at Arbys, and it was what she drove to avoid having to

    ride the school bus, where bullies had singled her out, teasing her

    relentlessly about the way she looked: her eathered dome o hair,

    her denim jacket and Iron Maiden T-shirt, her ripped jeans, herskull earring. The Smur was reedom, and shed grown ond o

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    12 g u

    O course, it eventually broke down, during one o the cold-

    est Chicago winters anyone could remember. In Jens amily, when

    a car broke, you took it to a proessional, but Kevin insisted they

    could x it themselves. For years hed worked alongside his ather

    and his older brother, xing old Chevys and Ramblers. He went to

    an auto-parts store and bought a new carburetor. A ew nights later,

    he drove to Jens house. It was dark and viciously cold, subzero

    with the windchill. Together, Kevin, Jen, and Jens mother pushed

    the dead Smur rom the driveway into the single-car garage. They

    couldnt get it completely inside, so they hung blankets on eitherside o the car to cut down on the wind. The cold made the metal

    tools painul to hold. As Jens mother kept the kids supplied with

    mugs o hot chocolate, Kevin showed Jen, patiently, step by step,

    how to replace the carb. You do this. Then this. You unscrew this.

    Shed always thought there was some magic to working on cars,

    some secret instinct. Now she realized there was no magic, only

    screws and bolts, belts and hoses.Ater that, Kevin and Jen shared a passion or puzzling out

    automotive problems. Throughout college, they patched up each

    others cars so they could drive to see each other on weekends. Jen

    attended a small liberal arts school not ar rom Springeld, while

    Kevin studied chemical engineering at the University o Illinois

    at Chicago. He joined the Society o Automotive Engineers club,

    which built alternative-uel cars and entered them in competitions

    with other schools. The club didnt have much money, so it had

    to be creative. Parts were oraged rom Dumpsters. Engines were

    bizarrely congured. A solar car included a seat stolen rom a lec-

    ture hall. A hybrid Dodge Neon used a Korean-made diesel engine

    meant or a riding lawn mower.

    The Neon almost got Kevin killed beore he could earn hisdegree. In a 1995 competition, he was riding shotgun, at a race-

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    Kevin and Jen 13

    partment, nally shooting out the bottom o the car through the

    wheel well and snapping one o the cars metal A-arms, part o the

    ront suspension. The Neon went skidding into the grass. Jen was

    there that day, watching in the stands, and when Kevins car didnt

    emerge rom behind a tree stand on the racetracks ar straightaway,

    she ran down the steps and sprinted across the ineld grass. When

    she got to the other side, heart racing, she saw Kevin with this huge

    grin on his ace, like he had just experienced one o the greatest

    moments o his lie.

    By now, Jen had graduated rom college and was working onher masters degree in English at a school in Springeld. When

    Kevin graduated in 1996, he got the rst job he could nd in

    Springeld so he could be near her. He became a bureaucrat with

    the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. He wrote pollution-

    prevention permits or the state. He calculated the toxic emis-

    sions o steel actories and huge agribusiness plants, then produced

    reports studded with chemical symbols and descriptions o manu-acturing processes. Like most people, he would say later, I have

    a job that I hate. But the pay and benets werent bad, and by

    1997, he and Jen had saved enough to buy their rst home, an

    $80,500 ranch house on the outskirts o Divernon. A armer had

    owned it or years, and beore that, a coal miner. Kevin loved the

    house because it came with a barn, a creek, and numerous mature

    trees; an avid hiker, hed always dreamed o caring or his own

    piece o wilderness, ar rom any city. For her part, Jen thought the

    house was merely solid, but she soon grew to enjoy living there,

    mostly because the setting was so private that she could see every

    social interaction coming rom miles away. I you didnt bother

    your neighbors, they didnt bother you.

    The previous owner had built a pole barn in the back

    a com-mon, low-cost type o barn oten used to house tractors, consist-

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    14 g u

    cars in the barn, side by side. For a time, Kevin hacked away at

    what he called a FrankenFierotwo halves o two Pontiac Fieros

    welded together down the middle, lengthwise. Meanwhile, Jen tin-

    kered with an old AMC Gremlin. Its original recracker-red paint

    job had aded to a sad orange. She appreciated the cars ugliness

    and its ridiculous, unmarketable name. It was like a monument to

    conused corporate thinkingthe ultimate underdog car. Later, she

    would pay to enter it in a car show, just so she could see the looks

    on peoples aces as they walked by: 57 Chevy Bel Air, 68 Plym-

    outh Roadrunner, 27 Ford Model T custom roadster . . . Gremlin.As soon as they bought the house, Kevin and Jen worked

    to pay o their small mortgage as quickly as they could. Theyd

    always been araid o debt. It was best to live simply and owe noth-

    ing. That was reedom.

    In the summer o 1998, a local Unitarian minister married

    them in an outdoor ceremony behind their house, beneath the can-

    opy o a big white oak tree. Their riends stayed or two days, drink-ing beer and eating barbecue and cake. At that point, Jen started

    working three part-time jobs on top o her day job as a programmer

    at a Springeld business. Shed promised Kevin she would pay o

    $10,000 in credit card debt shed been carrying or years.

    One year became two, two became ve. They worked, saved

    money. Jen switched jobs, going to work or an association o elec-

    tric cooperatives, member-owned groups whose mission was to

    bring electricity to rural areas. She developed websites, designed

    newsletters and logos, and laid out magazine articles or Illinois

    Country Livingmagazine. Kevin stayed where he was, at the Illinois

    EPA. Instead o having kids, they adopted two dogs that others

    had abandoned: Scooter, a Pomeranian mix, and Sala, an Austra-

    lian shepherd with eating issues. To cut down on heating bills andmake themselves more sel-sucient, they installed a geothermal

  • 7/27/2019 INGENIOUS by JASON FAGONE--Excerpt


    Kevin and Jen 15

    and a Ford Ranger pickup. All Kevin owed was a small monthly

    payment on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

    Then, that all, he heard something about a contest.

    i F i r s t became aware o Kevin and Jen during a phone call with

    an X Prize staer in February 2010. Id asked the Foundation to

    point me in the direction o a ew interesting teams, and a guy

    there suggested I look into Illuminati Motor Works, which is what

    Kevin was calling his project. Battery-powered dreamboat, Iwrote down. Illinois corneld. White guys.

    I live outside o Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I let a phone mes-

    sage with Kevin in Springeld. He returned my call on his lunch

    break, rom the cab o his pickup truck. He talked aster than I

    could keep up; a brie call yielded ve pages o quotes about bat-

    teries, aerodynamics, welders gloves, stoves, and glass, each strand

    o thought hopelessly knotted into the next.I wanted to understand. So in March 2010, I few rom Philly

    to St. Louis. I rented a car, drove two hours north to Springeld,

    and slept in a motel.

    The next morning, I rose early and headed south on the inter-

    state. Ater twenty miles, I exited onto Route 66, pulling past grain

    silos and elds o soybeans in a low, thick og. In the elds, slow-

    moving tractors seemed to smoke like reshly doused lumps o coal.

    Beore long, I approached a rare vertical blip in the land-

    scapea thick circle o tall trees concealing some kind o com-

    pound. I pulled into a gravel driveway and parked beside a small

    burgundy house with white trim. O to the let was a creek that

    led to a barn. Beyond the trees lay cornelds as ar as I could see.

    A black-haired man stepped over two lethargic dogs to an-swer the door. He was wearing a hat that read scottys quality

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    16 g u

    ball. He grinned hugely, showing o a pair o cherubic dimples.

    Kevin Smith had told me he was thirty-nine, but he probably

    could have passed or twenty-eight. He had a brown mustache, a

    soul patch, and a thin crescent o beard on his chin.

    Right now Im on a urlough rom the state, he said, beck-

    oning me into his kitchen. Illinois is in trouble.

    Because the recession had drained the states budget, Illinois

    had oered state employees like Kevin the chance to stay home

    without pay. Some o Kevins colleagues had taken the urlough

    to spend more time with their spouses and kids. Kevin took theurlough so he could work on his X Prize car.

    Ive spent everything Ive made or the last two years on this

    project, he told me. Last years taxes were interesting. I actually

    spent more money than my taxable income. Its a voluntary ur-

    lough, and Im like, Woo-hoo! I need the time.

    At the kitchen table, three men in fannel shirts sipped coee.

    They were also on urlough rom state jobs.This coee is terrible, one o the men told Kevin. Im sorry.

    It really is.

    The men picked up their coee mugs, walked over the two

    napping dogs and out the ront door, and took a let. They passed

    a lled, aboveground pool covered with green scum. Beyond the

    pool was a barn with a heavy maroon door. Kevin opened the door

    and ficked on a light, revealing a cavernous space littered with

    tools and auto parts. Shelves groaned with stray gears, bolts, pieces

    o plywood and metal, and buckets o epoxy. In one corner was

    a makeshit, scale-model wind tunnel, a plywood contraption

    that looked like part o a skateboard ramp. A message was scrawled

    on the wall in blue chalk: somebody has to do something. that

    somebody is us!Kevin pointed to a small wood-burning stove: This is where

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    Kevin and Jen 17

    I didnt know what that meant. Steel or the car? I thought he

    was kidding.

    He lited a shea o old newspapers rom the dusty concrete

    foor, placed them in the stove, and lit a match. He ed the mouth

    o the stove with scrap pine until the pine caught. He crumpled a

    pizza box into the re, and the fames licked higher.

    Then he stood, walked toward the middle o the shop, and

    proudly announced, Heres the car!

    The entire surace o the cars body had the ridged, shriveled,

    dessicated texture and yellow-brown color o dead skin. And therewas a loto surace area. In ront, a pair o large, bulbous enders

    swooned up and over the wheels, a style reminiscent o luxury cars

    rom the thirties, and the car sloped back rom there in a grad-

    ual taper o shocking length, stretching on and on, like the trail

    o a divas gown. The dead-skin stu was dried epoxy. Soon the

    car would have a coat o primer, then a coat o silver paint atop

    the primer, but or now, Kevin and his buddies were still in theprocess o gooping epoxy on the cars berglass body, which they

    had built up, layer by layer, entirely by hand, like middle schoolers

    doing papier-mch.

    Kevin explained that under the berglass and epoxy was a

    steel-tube rame, also built by hand. I didnt know you could

    build a cars steel rame by hand, but there are lots o things I

    dont know about cars, and Kevin made the rame seem like not

    that big a deal. Hed simply gone to the local metal supplier and

    scrap yard, Mervis Iron, and bought a bunch o steel tubes at any-

    where between 30 and 90 cents a oot. The steel was regular old

    mild steelthe kind used to make bridgesand not the more

    expensive, lighter chromoly steel used to make bicycles. Hed

    brought the tubes back to the barn and stoked the wood-burningstove until the coals were orange. Wearing a welders glove, hed

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    18 g u

    o the stove. Once the end was glowing red, hed carried it to

    a workbench where Josh Spradlin, one o his riends and col-

    leagues, had clamped a piece o plywood that ormed a curve:

    perhaps the sharp curve o the cars ender, or the curved, arching

    rib that would orm the top o the car. Kevin wrapped the mol-

    ten tube around the top o the plywood. Josh held a hammer in

    each hand, pinning the tube to the plywood with the hammers as

    Kevin gripped a third hammer and beat down on the tube, orc-

    ing it to conorm to the curve.

    Once the steel tubes had cooled, Kevin welded them into arame. He told me the car contained several thousand welds. This

    seemed like a lot, especially i they were all done by hand, and

    by one dude, instead o by those slick-looking robots you see in

    car commercials. I couldnt shake the image o a crucial weld in

    Kevins car snapping like a chicken bone at 70 miles per hour.

    Doesnt the structural strength o your car depend on your

    skill as a welder? I asked.Kevin pued himsel up and fexed his arms. Why, yes, it

    does, he said, grinning. Thank you!

    Thomas will be the rst one to drive it, Josh said, nodding at

    Thomas Pasko, a team member who runs a local auto-repair shop.

    My wie just took out a $2 million insurance policy, Thomas


    We should all take out $2 million policies, Josh said. We

    seat our people in the car.

    By now, Jen Danzinger had joined the men in the shop. My

    wies smiling, Kevin said. Apparently she already bought a


    Jen tilted her head thoughtully.

    I could get a new couch, she said.Kevin turned serious or a moment and admitted that, yes, he

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    Kevin and Jen 19

    riends had scavenged rom local junkyards. The rear suspension

    came rom a Dodge Neon. The struts were a combination o Nis-

    san, Miata, and Neon struts. The steering is Honda, Kevin told

    me, then rowned, racking his memory or more examples.

    Josh jumped in. The master cylinder is Volkswagen. He was

    a large man with a long graying beard and a shaved head. His right

    cal was covered with a tattoo o a hiker in the woods, a colorul

    scene that was accompanied by a quote rom The Lord of the Rings:

    not all those who wander are lost.

    The windshield was rom a Mazda Miata, Josh went on to

    explain. Bumpers are 71 Camaro bumpers. He shoved his hands

    in his pockets. The ront springs . . . Pulsar?No, the rearare rom the Pulsar, Kevin said. The ronts are

    Illuminatis car in March 2010.

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    20 g u

    I dont know anymore, Kevin said.

    Why the gullwing doors? I asked.

    Cause theyre cool as hell, Kevin said.

    Easy entrance and egress is the main point, Josh said. But it

    looks uckin cool.

    It looks uckin cool, plus theyre really hard to make and

    somebody said we couldnt do it, Kevin said.

    Weve gotten very little local support, Josh said. Most people

    just dont believe us.

    I asked or some gures. What was the cars range on a singlebattery charge? What was its MPGe?

    About 500, Kevin said.

    Five hundred orboth.

    Five hundred MPGe.

    Five hundred miles o range.

    Doesnt that seem wildly optimistic? I asked.

    Arent you full of shit?We thought so, too, Kevin said, nodding. But then he had a

    riend at work, some guy named George, check his math, and George

    came up with the same numbers. So Kevin gured he was solid.

    i s t o p p e D asking questions or a while so the team could get work

    done. This was March. The test drive through the corn and soy-

    beans, the one with me and Jen in the back and Kevin and Nate in

    the ront, wouldnt come until June. Between now and then lay an

    obstacle known as Shakedownthe rst competition stage o the

    X Prize. It would be a practice round, a chance or the teams to

    work the bugs out o their cars and get used to the NASCAR track

    in Michigan where most tests would be perormed. The point othe Shakedown is to try to break your car so it doesnt break later,

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    Kevin and Jen 21

    haul the car to Michigan. But right now it was nowhere near ready

    or Shakedown. The 200-horsepower electric motora oot-and-a-

    hal-long cylinder encased partly in ironwas on a table in a side

    room o the shop. The batteries, dozens o them, rectangular slabs

    o blue plastic that looked like mutant LEGO blocks, were lying

    on the foor. The shocks werent installed yet. I told Kevin that,

    according to the pictures o other teams cars Id seen online, he

    seemed pretty ar behind. Right, he saidbecause other teams

    had chosen to adapt existing cars. We had to build an entire car

    and think about all the components that go in it, he went on.Making all the couplers. Windshield wipers. Hoooooolllly cow,

    windshield wipers are tough! Trying to t em in there and make

    it waterproo so nothing comes into the car. Just getting the wind-

    shield was a big hassle, trying to nd something that t our car.

    Well, we redesigned the car so the windshield t. We made it a

    hal inch wider.

    Josh disappeared into a side room and came back with whatlooked like the door o a gym locker. It had a vent at the top. He

    said it might be useul in building a vent on the side o the car;

    the electric batteries would get hot, and there had to be a way to

    let that heat out. We can spend a weekend trying to build vents,

    Josh said, or we can just cut these out, paint em.

    Kevin examined the locker door. I was just trying to gure

    out i theyd work, the size and the style.

    These were probably made in the orties, Josh said.

    The an was going to gosomewhere, Kevin said. And

    wed have some kind o vent. Now the an will go where the vent

    is. He looked satised.

    Hours passed. Classic rock played rom a beat-up radio: Pat

    Benatar, Neil Young. Josh cut the vents rom the gym lockers. Theshop smelled like singed metal.

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    22 g u

    parallaxing by. It started to rain. I asked Jen i it was true that

    Kevin had spent all o his income or the past two years on the

    car. She nodded, and the side o her mouth curled up slightly.

    Kevin is usually very careul with his money, she said, fick-

    ing the windshield wipers to maximum. So this is an amazing

    gamble. From the very beginning, we had discussed how this was

    going to go. We agreed that i we didnt get sponsorship, signicant

    sponsorship, he wasnt going to do the project. And yet, wellshe

    laughed nervouslyin or a penny, in or a pound.

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