Jason Fagone | Ingenious, Crown Publishing Group | November 2013 | 20 minutes (4,972 words)

Below is the first chapter from Jason Fagone’s book, Ingenious, about the X Prize Foundation’s $10 million competition to build a car that can travel 100 miles on a single gallon of gas. Thanks to Fagone and Crown Publishing for sharing it with the Longreads community. You can purchase the full book here.

* * *

We speed west into a bank of mottled clouds and blue-black sky and not much else. We drip 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 if everything’s 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 blastoff pitch.

There are four of us in here: me, a woman named Jen Danzinger, and two men. The men are in front, firing questions at each other in quick bursts. I’m 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 silvery bulge, maybe our vehicle’s whole weird shape. Elongated fuselage, tapering tail. Does he have any idea what the hell he just passed?

The road beneath us marks the boundary between two Central Illinois farming counties. We’re 220 miles from Chicago, 100 miles from Champaign, 80 miles from St. Louis, and only a couple miles from two major U.S. roads. To the northwest is U.S. Route 66, one of the first American highways, built to let drivers bypass little farming towns. Around here it happens to be the frontage road, or access road, that runs parallel to Interstate 55. If we press our faces to the heat-fogged, northwest-facing windows and look beyond the frontage road, we can see headlights torquing through the heavy blueness on I-55—another, 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 of business, and citizens drained away to other, more prosperous places. By the nineties, so many people had left that it no longer made sense for the town to maintain a high school. In a final humiliation, Divernon began shipping its children to a neighboring district seven miles west.

The market crash of 2008 caused barely a ripple here because the pond had been drying out for decades. The Obama stimulus bill of 2009 managed to skip across what was left of that pond like a smooth, flat rock. The only thing resembling economic stimulus in this region had come and gone eight years before, in 2002, when the gruff old man who owned the hardware/beer/auto-parts store in nearby Springfield, the capital of Illinois, only fifteen miles north of Divernon, hung a closed sign in the window, walked back into the dusty recesses of his shop, and shot himself in the head. When police removed his body and explored the building, they found a stash of strange treasures: a live hand grenade, a loaded 1955 Smith & Wesson .32 pistol still in its original box, and, incredibly, a secret second floor filled with vintage cars and motorcycles, including a 1912 Harley-Davidson with an intact carbide headlight. A rumor went around town that Jay Leno, a voracious car collector, had heard about the find and made inquiries. Another rumor had it that David Letterman was going to pay top dollar for the Harley just so he could piss Leno off by destroying it on his show. When the vehicles were eventually put up for auction, two thousand people registered to bid, and an equal number showed up just to watch. Two men from Decatur ended up pooling their money to buy the Harley for $80,000.

Our driver, Kevin Smith, a chemical engineer, suddenly throttles down. The vehicle judders to a halt.

“Regen’s kickin’ in,” Jen says.

“Regen” is short for regenerative brakes. In an electric vehicle like this one, the regen system traps the energy normally wasted during braking and pumps it back into the battery pack. The sound it makes is distinctive: not a screech but sort of a whrr-whrr-whrr-RUH, like the sound of Pac-Man getting eaten by a ghost.

A smell now fills the cabin, plasticky and coppery, and I notice Jen making a face. She isn’t an engineer like the men in front. She’s a graphic designer, a programmer, and a onetime creative writing major. Over the past four months, whenever something about this vehicle has confused me, I’ve gone to Jen for an explanation, because she’s sharp and she’s funny and she speaks a language I understand. Her role tonight is to pay attention to sounds and smells: every pebble beneath the wheels, every vibration, the smell of 800 pounds of batteries cooking away inches from her right thigh. This is a test drive. “Diagnosing problems on cars can involve all senses,” she’ll tell me later, “but I caution against using taste.” Jen says that smells are particularly revealing. Her descriptions of automotive smells have a literary quality. Burning oil “is an easy one: the bluish-black cloud, and a gagging pollution at the back of the tongue.” Hot brake pads are “like hot metal and pencil tips that threaten to clog your nose hairs.” Leaking antifreeze is sticky-sweet, like burning maple syrup.

Hot batteries are a new one, though. She’ll tell me later that they smell like Barbie swallowing a roll of pennies and going to a tanning salon.

Now that we’re stopped, Jen and I flick the latches at the bottom of our doors. They open vertically, not horizontally: gullwing doors, usually found in vehicles of outrageous luxury, like high-end sports cars. Also the DeLorean from Back to the Future. I forget to hold on to my door’s leather handle as it rises, as I’ve been instructed to do, and it snaps up too quickly, causing a loud bang.

Kevin Smith raises his eyebrows. He steps out of his seat and examines the scratch my door made on the roof.

Kevin tells us something is wrong with the car. A few minutes ago, it “didn’t want to shift” and “made a bad noise and a bad smell.” He confers with the freckled, red-bearded man in the shot- gun seat, Nate Knappenburger, who’s hunched over a laptop.

With the doors open, we can get our bearings. There’s a field of corn to our left and a field of soybeans to our right. A summer breeze ruffles the crops. It’s June 2010. Fireflies dimple the corn with light. The air smells like pollen. The sky is pierced with stars.

“Feels roomy all of a sudden?” Kevin says to Jen, his wife.

“Big pimpin,” Jen replies.

* * *

Kevin and 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 of Chicago. Kevin’s father managed a grocery store there. Jen’s 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 first got to be friends, despite having nearly opposite personalities. Kevin was engaging and pointy-eared and never stopped talking. Jen was slight and private, with green eyes and birdlike features. But they both sensed they were different from the other kids; instead of sports, they liked movies and fantasy games. At school, during recess, Kevin and Jen liked to sit on a patch of concrete and draw elaborate Dungeons & Dragons mazes. Drawing the mazes was more fun than actually playing the game. They’d 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 for the pure muddy thrill of it. She’d once tried to bloody the nose of a little boy in her class for some foul remark, at which point her teacher pulled her off the boy and scolded Jen for unladylike behavior. She was cool. She wasn’t a girl—she was Jen.

In sixth grade, Kevin handed her a marriage certificate he’d bought from a novelty vending machine at their local arcade. He’d taken the liberty of filling out the blanks.

At first, Jen didn’t know how to process Kevin’s affection. She kept him at a distance until she was sixteen, when she started learning how to drive her mother’s car. One day, after school, Kevin insisted on walking Jen out to her car, and before they said goodbye, she saw Kevin looking at her. There was “something about the way the parking-lot sodium lights illuminated his eyes,” she would recall later. “Suddenly I felt an emotional connection and realized I’d wasted a lot of time. He was the one.”

They started dating around the time they started working on cars together. Their first project was Jen’s 1981 AMC Spirit, a classic American crapbox—one of those small, lumpen hatchbacks that American automakers had started to pump out after the oil shocks of the seventies. Because of its powder-blue coat of paint, Jen had dubbed it the Smurf. It was what she drove to her after-school job at Arby’s, 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 feathered dome of hair, her denim jacket and Iron Maiden T-shirt, her ripped jeans, her skull earring. The Smurf was freedom, and she’d grown fond of it despite its many quirks, the way you might grow fond of some damaged animal you’d rescued from the side of the road.

Of course, it eventually broke down, during one of the coldest Chicago winters anyone could remember. In Jen’s family, when a car broke, you took it to a professional, but Kevin insisted they could fix it themselves. For years he’d worked alongside his father and his older brother, fixing old Chevys and Ramblers. He went to an auto-parts store and bought a new carburetor. A few nights later, he drove to Jen’s house. It was dark and viciously cold, subzero with the windchill. Together, Kevin, Jen, and Jen’s mother pushed the dead Smurf from the driveway into the single-car garage. They couldn’t get it completely inside, so they hung blankets on either side of the car to cut down on the wind. The cold made the metal tools painful to hold. As Jen’s mother kept the kids supplied with mugs of hot chocolate, Kevin showed Jen, patiently, step by step, how to replace the carb. You do this. Then this. You unscrew this. She’d 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.

After that, Kevin and Jen shared a passion for puzzling out automotive problems. Throughout college, they patched up each other’s cars so they could drive to see each other on weekends. Jen attended a small liberal arts school not far from Springfield, while Kevin studied chemical engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He joined the Society of Automotive Engineers club, which built alternative-fuel cars and entered them in competitions with other schools. The club didn’t have much money, so it had to be creative. Parts were foraged from Dumpsters. Engines were bizarrely configured. A solar car included a seat stolen from a lecture hall. A hybrid Dodge Neon used a Korean-made diesel engine meant for a riding lawn mower.

The Neon almost got Kevin killed before he could earn his degree. In a 1995 competition, he was riding shotgun, at a racetrack, when a ten-inch cog came loose inside the engine. Spinning incredibly fast, the large silver cog bounced around the engine compartment, finally shooting out the bottom of the car through the wheel well and snapping one of the car’s metal A-arms, part of the front suspension. The Neon went skidding into the grass. Jen was there that day, watching in the stands, and when Kevin’s car didn’t emerge from behind a tree stand on the racetrack’s far straightaway, she ran down the steps and sprinted across the infield grass. When she got to the other side, heart racing, she saw Kevin with this huge grin on his face, like he had just experienced one of the greatest moments of his life.

By now, Jen had graduated from college and was working on her master’s degree in English at a school in Springfield. When Kevin graduated in 1996, he got the first job he could find in Springfield so he could be near her. He became a bureaucrat with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. He wrote pollution-prevention permits for the state. He calculated the toxic emissions of steel factories and huge agribusiness plants, then produced reports studded with chemical symbols and descriptions of manufacturing processes. “Like most people,” he would say later, “I have a job that I hate.” But the pay and benefits weren’t bad, and by 1997, he and Jen had saved enough to buy their first home, an $80,500 ranch house on the outskirts of Divernon. A farmer had owned it for years, and before that, a coal miner. Kevin loved the house because it came with a barn, a creek, and numerous mature trees; an avid hiker, he’d always dreamed of caring for his own piece of wilderness, far from 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 from miles away. If you didn’t bother your neighbors, they didn’t bother you.

The previous owner had built a pole barn in the back—a common, low-cost type of barn often used to house tractors, consisting of a series of poles sunk into the ground with metal sheeting around them—and pretty soon, Kevin and Jen were working on cars in the barn, side by side. For a time, Kevin hacked away at what he called a “FrankenFiero”—two halves of two Pontiac Fieros welded together down the middle, lengthwise. Meanwhile, Jen tinkered with an old AMC Gremlin. Its original firecracker-red paint job had faded to a sad orange. She appreciated the car’s ugliness and its ridiculous, unmarketable name. It was like a monument to confused corporate thinking—the ultimate underdog car. Later, she would pay to enter it in a car show, just so she could see the looks on people’s faces 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 off their small mortgage as quickly as they could. They’d always been afraid of debt. It was best to live simply and owe nothing. That was freedom.

In the summer of 1998, a local Unitarian minister married them in an outdoor ceremony behind their house, beneath the canopy of a big white oak tree. Their friends stayed for two days, drinking beer and eating barbecue and cake. At that point, Jen started working three part-time jobs on top of her day job as a programmer at a Springfield business. She’d promised Kevin she would pay off $10,000 in credit card debt she’d been carrying for years.

One year became two, two became five. They worked, saved money. Jen switched jobs, going to work for an association of electric 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 for Illinois Country Living magazine. Kevin stayed where he was, at the Illinois EPA. Instead of having kids, they adopted two dogs that others had abandoned: Scooter, a Pomeranian mix, and Sala, an Australian shepherd with eating issues. To cut down on heating bills and make themselves more self-sufficient, they installed a geothermal heating system, then paid it off early. By 2007, Kevin and Jen owed nothing on their credit cards or their two cars—a Chrysler Neon and a Ford Ranger pickup. All Kevin owed was a small monthly payment on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

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

* * *

I first became aware of Kevin and Jen during a phone call with an X Prize staffer in February 2010. I’d asked the Foundation to point me in the direction of a few interesting teams, and a guy there suggested I look into Illuminati Motor Works, which is what Kevin was calling his project. “Battery-powered dreamboat,” I wrote down. “Illinois cornfield. White guys.”

I live outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I left a phone message with Kevin in Springfield. He returned my call on his lunch break, from the cab of his pickup truck. He talked faster than I could keep up; a brief call yielded five pages of quotes about batteries, aerodynamics, welder’s gloves, stoves, and glass, each strand of thought hopelessly knotted into the next.

I wanted to understand. So in March 2010, I flew from Philly to St. Louis. I rented a car, drove two hours north to Springfield, and slept in a motel.

The next morning, I rose early and headed south on the interstate. After twenty miles, I exited onto Route 66, pulling past grain silos and fields of soybeans in a low, thick fog. In the fields, slow- moving tractors seemed to smoke like freshly doused lumps of coal.

Before long, I approached a rare vertical blip in the landscape—a thick circle of tall trees concealing some kind of compound. I pulled into a gravel driveway and parked beside a small burgundy house with white trim. Off to the left was a creek that led to a barn. Beyond the trees lay cornfields as far as I could see.

A black-haired man stepped over two lethargic dogs to answer the door. He was wearing a hat that read Scotty’s Quality Recycled Auto Parts. There was a can of generic cola in his left hand. His gray T-shirt had a welder burn in it the size of a tennis ball. He grinned hugely, showing off a pair of cherubic dimples. Kevin Smith had told me he was thirty-nine, but he probably could have passed for twenty-eight. He had a brown mustache, a soul patch, and a thin crescent of beard on his chin.

“Right now I’m on a furlough from the state,” he said, beckoning me into his kitchen. “Illinois is in trouble.”

Because the recession had drained the state’s budget, Illinois had offered state employees like Kevin the chance to stay home without pay. Some of Kevin’s colleagues had taken the furlough to spend more time with their spouses and kids. Kevin took the furlough so he could work on his X Prize car.

“I’ve spent everything I’ve made for the last two years on this project,” he told me. “Last year’s taxes were interesting. I actually spent more money than my taxable income. It’s a voluntary fur- lough, and I’m like, Woo-hoo! I need the time.”

At the kitchen table, three men in flannel shirts sipped coffee. They were also on furlough from state jobs.

“This coffee is terrible,” one of the men told Kevin. “I’m sorry. It really is.”

The men picked up their coffee mugs, walked over the two napping dogs and out the front door, and took a left. They passed a filled, aboveground pool covered with green scum. Beyond the pool was a barn with a heavy maroon door. Kevin opened the door and flicked on a light, revealing a cavernous space littered with tools and auto parts. Shelves groaned with stray gears, bolts, pieces of plywood and metal, and buckets of epoxy. In one corner was a makeshift, scale-model “wind tunnel,” a plywood contraption that looked like part of 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 we forged our steel.”

I didn’t know what that meant. Steel for the car? I thought he was kidding.

He lifted a sheaf of old newspapers from the dusty concrete floor, placed them in the stove, and lit a match. He fed the mouth of the stove with scrap pine until the pine caught. He crumpled a pizza box into the fire, and the flames licked higher.

Then he stood, walked toward the middle of the shop, and proudly announced, “Here’s the car!”

The entire surface of the car’s body had the ridged, shriveled, dessicated texture and yellow-brown color of dead skin. And there was a lot of surface area. In front, a pair of large, bulbous fenders swooned up and over the wheels, a style reminiscent of luxury cars from the thirties, and the car sloped back from there in a gradual taper of shocking length, stretching on and on, like the trail of a diva’s gown. The dead-skin stuff was dried epoxy. Soon the car would have a coat of primer, then a coat of silver paint atop the primer, but for now, Kevin and his buddies were still in the process of gooping epoxy on the car’s fiberglass body, which they had built up, layer by layer, entirely by hand, like middle schoolers doing papier-mâché.

Kevin explained that under the fiberglass and epoxy was a steel-tube frame, also built by hand. I didn’t know you could build a car’s steel frame by hand, but there are lots of things I don’t know about cars, and Kevin made the frame seem like not that big a deal. He’d simply gone to the local metal supplier and scrap yard, Mervis Iron, and bought a bunch of steel tubes at any- where between 30 and 90 cents a foot. The steel was regular old “mild” steel—the kind used to make bridges—and not the more expensive, lighter chromoly steel used to make bicycles. He’d brought the tubes back to the barn and stoked the wood-burning stove until the coals were orange. Wearing a welder’s glove, he’d gripped a length of steel tubing and fed one end into the mouth of the stove. Once the end was glowing red, he’d carried it to a workbench where Josh Spradlin, one of his friends and colleagues, had clamped a piece of plywood that formed a curve: perhaps the sharp curve of the car’s fender, or the curved, arching rib that would form the top of the car. Kevin wrapped the molten tube around the top of 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, forcing it to conform to the curve.

Once the steel tubes had cooled, Kevin welded them into a frame. He told me the car contained several thousand welds. This seemed like a lot, especially if they were all done by hand, and by one dude, instead of by those slick-looking robots you see in car commercials. I couldn’t shake the image of a crucial weld in Kevin’s car snapping like a chicken bone at 70 miles per hour.

“Doesn’t the structural strength of your car depend on your skill as a welder?” I asked.

Kevin puffed himself up and flexed his arms. “Why, yes, it does,” he said, grinning. “Thank you!”

“Thomas will be the first one to drive it,” Josh said, nodding at Thomas Pasko, a team member who runs a local auto-repair shop.

“My wife just took out a $2 million insurance policy,” Thomas said.

“We should all take out $2 million policies,” Josh said. “We seat four people in the car.”

By now, Jen Danzinger had joined the men in the shop. “My wife’s smiling,” Kevin said. “Apparently she already bought a policy.”

Jen tilted her head thoughtfully.

”I could get a new couch,” she said.

Kevin turned serious for a moment and admitted that, yes, he was “paranoid” about something breaking. It wasn’t just the welds. Much of the car was made from used parts that Kevin and his friends had scavenged from local junkyards. The rear suspension came from a Dodge Neon. The struts were a combination of Nissan, Miata, and Neon struts. “The steering is Honda,” Kevin told me, then frowned, racking his memory for 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 calf was covered with a tattoo of a hiker in the woods, a colorful scene that was accompanied by a quote from The Lord of the Rings: Not all those who wander are lost.

The windshield was from a Mazda Miata, Josh went on to explain. “Bumpers are ‘71 Camaro bumpers.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “The front springs … Pulsar?”

“No, the rear are from the Pulsar,” Kevin said. “The fronts are from somewhere else.”

“An RX-7, right?” Josh asked.

“I don’t know anymore,” Kevin said.

“Why the gullwing doors?” I asked.

“‘Cause they’re cool as hell,” Kevin said.

“Easy entrance and egress is the main point,” Josh said. “But it looks fuckin’ cool.”

“It looks fuckin’ cool, plus they’re really hard to make and somebody said we couldn’t do it,” Kevin said.

“We’ve gotten very little local support,” Josh said. “Most people just don’t believe us.”

I asked for some figures. What was the car’s range on a single battery charge? What was its MPGe?

“About 500,” Kevin said.

Five hundred for both.

Five hundred MPGe.

Five hundred miles of range.

“Doesn’t that seem wildly optimistic?” I asked.

Aren’t you full of shit?

“We thought so, too,” Kevin said, nodding. But then he had a friend at work, some guy named George, check his math, and George came up with the same numbers. So Kevin figured he was solid.

* * *

I stopped asking questions for a while so the team could get work done. This was March. The test drive through the corn and soybeans, the one with me and Jen in the back and Kevin and Nate in the front, wouldn’t come until June. Between now and then lay an obstacle known as Shakedown—the first competition stage of the X Prize. It would be a practice round, a chance for the teams to work the bugs out of their cars and get used to the NASCAR track in Michigan where most tests would be performed. “The point of the Shakedown is to try to break your car so it doesn’t break later,” Kevin said.

In a little more than a month, he and his crew would have to haul the car to Michigan. But right now it was nowhere near ready for Shakedown. The 200-horsepower electric motor—a foot-and-a- half-long cylinder encased partly in iron—was on a table in a side room of the shop. The batteries, dozens of them, rectangular slabs of blue plastic that looked like mutant LEGO blocks, were lying on the floor. The shocks weren’t installed yet. I told Kevin that, according to the pictures of other teams’ cars I’d seen online, he seemed pretty far behind. “Right,” he said—because 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 fit ‘em in there and make it waterproof so nothing comes into the car. Just getting the windshield was a big hassle, trying to find something that fit our car. Well, we redesigned the car so the windshield fit. We made it a half inch wider.”

Josh disappeared into a side room and came back with what looked like the door of a gym locker. It had a vent at the top. He said it might be useful in building a vent on the side of 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 figure out if they’d work, the size and the style.”

“These were probably made in the forties,” Josh said.

“The fan was going to go—somewhere,” Kevin said. “And we’d have some kind of vent. Now the fan will go where the vent is.” He looked satisfied.

Hours passed. Classic rock played from a beat-up radio: Pat Benatar, Neil Young. Josh cut the vents from the gym lockers. The shop smelled like singed metal.

Toward dinnertime, I rode with Jen to get pizza for the team. It turned out to be half an hour’s drive through dark terrain, silos parallaxing by. It started to rain. I asked Jen if it was true that Kevin had spent all of his income for the past two years on the car. She nodded, and the side of her mouth curled up slightly. “Kevin is usually very careful with his money,” she said, flicking 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 if we didn’t get sponsorship, significant sponsorship, he wasn’t going to do the project. And yet, well”—she laughed nervously—”in for a penny, in for a pound.”

* * *

From Ingenious, Copyright 2013 Jason Fagone, Crown Publishing Group.