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Rocket cars blast off at the dragstrip

William Paine/SWT
Andrew Williamson shows off his battered rocket car. “I’m actually a part time student. I came back to finish this degree after graduating with a management degree from Radford. It’s what I like to do so I decided to jump back into the program,” he said.



The Monday before graduation, students taking New River Community College’s Engineering Design Technology (EDT) class gathered at the Motor Mile Dragway in Fairlawn for what many considered to be the highlight of their semester.

For the second year in a row, Jeff Levy’s EDT class designed and then produced miniature rocket cars for the purpose of seeing just how fast they could make it down the drag strip. Adding to the excitement of the event, Levy and his class of 11 freshmen and 11 sophomores were attempting to break the Guinness Book’s official world speed record for rocket powered model cars. The number to beat was 204 miles per hour.

Throughout the semester, Levy’s teams of students designed their rocket cars and then produced them with the school’s 3-D printer.

“This was a fun project that lasted throughout the year and they were able to apply a lot of the skill sets they’ve learned,” said EDT instructor Jeff Levy. “They learned about computational fluid dynamics, which is basically a virtual wind tunnel that they were able to stick their models in and work out their aerodynamic kinks. They were able to utilize some machine technology because all of the wheels they used were water jetted over at the main campus. So we used a lot of skill sets.”

Each model car was outfitted with a black powder powered jet pack and set in place in front of steel blast plates made by the NRCC’s welding students. The car was then attached to a metal wire that was strung taught between the start to the finish of the course, a distance of about 350 feet.

Because the idea was to break the Guinness Book record, the cars were videoed and signaling devises at 100 and 200 feet were set up to measure the model’s speeds.

The first rocket car to ignite and start down the track somehow came off the steel wire and exploded in midair. Other models broke apart in less spectacular fashion but accidents were common both for the cars and the measuring devises and it took several runs before an official speed could be recorded.

When speeds were finally measured that afternoon, Levy and company recorded a high speed of 280 miles per hour on at least two occasions.

Time to call the Guinness Book of World Records?

Unfortunately that call will have to wait till next year because to officially break the record, the track must be “flipped.” That is to say, the rocket cars must average more than 204 miles per hour going in the opposite directions to account for wind speed/incline and other factors.

Though some of Levy’s students exceeded the current speed record, none of the rocket cars were in good enough shape to make the return run.

“Our last run that we made yesterday, I’m fairly confident that we would have been in the mid 300’s or low 400’s,” said Levy. “It was the fastest run of the day but it did not clip our laser timing devise. It was down the track … 450 feet in less than a couple of seconds but the car was completely destroyed.”

NRCC’s administration is now considering the purchase of a new 3-D printer that uses a layering technique to produce a carbon fiber Kevlar material, which would be stronger and lighter than the material now used to produce these models. This may alleviate breakage problems which were common at Monday’s model test site at the dragstrip.

“We’re definitely doing this again next year,” said Levy.

If all goes according to plan, Levy and his class will be using the most powerful black powder rocket engines that are available to the general public along with stronger and lighter model cars. From the experience gained this year, NRCC’s EDT class may be able to break the Guinness Book World Record when they do this again next year.

“I actually understand based on that somebody has … not officially … been close to 500 miles per hour,” said Levy. “We’ll have our work cut out for us for sure.”



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