CU Denver engineering students race their motorized barstool at the Utah Salt Flats

BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS, Utah – Moments after tumbling across the desert hardpan, Eric Paquette brushed salt from his knee, gazed at the endless white horizon and considered what just happened. He had strapped on a helmet, planted his rear on a motorized barstool and, after a push-off from his classmates, hit the ignition.

The barstool’s GPS device, littered 20 yards from where Paquette came to rest after multiple rolls, confirmed what he thought: 52 mph.

“I’m actually happy about that (speed),” said Paquette, a senior mechanical engineering major at the University of Colorado Denver and budding barstool racer.

His post-spill cool under the scorching afternoon sun belied his newbie status. “I’m fine,” he said. “A little hurt pride. My butt hurts a little bit. I have to buy a new helmet now.”

When he decelerated after crossing the finish line on the one-fifth-mile track, the barstool started to shimmy, causing Paquette to lose control.

He was quickly surrounded by teammates David Brandt and Sean Caldwell as well as his parents, who traveled from their home in Michigan, to watch the unusual contraption they’d heard about.

A decade ago, battery powered barstool racing — open-wheel lakester and closed-wheel streamliner — was added as a specialty class in the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association’s (USFRA) annual World of Speed event. Last weekend’s event featured hundreds of speedsters; barstool runs took place a mile away from the combustion-engine classes.

After Paquette’s blistering run, Caldwell picked up the GPS, scanned the display and smiled. “Max speed of 52!” said Caldwell, who like Paquette, will graduate in mechanical engineering in December.

Brandt, walking up to the barstool, asked, “Do you think we’ll be able to run it again?”

“Nope,” said Paquette, pointing to the bent aluminum frame. The university senior, meanwhile, sustained a large raspberry on his lower back and a sprained ankle.

The CU Denver team hoped to make four more lakester runs on Sunday, as well as five trials in the streamliner class (current record of 52.95 mph, set in 2010) on Monday. With the crash, the barstool’s prospects vanished into the desert haze.

In the lakester class, the students were gunning to break the record of 55.93 mph set last year by John Lee of California. They almost did it.

“If I could have pushed the button sooner, I would have crushed (the record),” Paquette said. “I think we would have had a very realistic chance of getting above 60. There was a third of the track where I was still messing with the throttle… Just a few more runs to dial everything in.”

On his maiden Salt Flats ride, zipping across the “unique surface” at just three-quarter-inch-clearance, Paquette carried the hope and pride of a seven-member team of CU Denver students. The group — rounded out by Carolyn Lieu, Nate Dieringer, Ryan Haun and David Sanger — spent 18 months designing and building the electric-powered barstool as a final project in their senior design class. All the labor and $16,000 expense — funded mostly through grants — was geared toward the Barstool Nationals on the unforgiving Utah desert.

“That’s the way it goes,” Paquette said. He, Brandt and Caldwell spent several hours earlier in the day dealing with a couple other unforeseens on the 160-pound vehicle. The solenoid, which conducts electricity from the battery to the motor, needed retooling, and the steering column required reinforcements.

“It’s too bad he couldn’t have had a few more runs,” Russ Paquette said of his son. “I think they could have done it. …. That’s a lot of work for 45 seconds (of racing).”

Fittingly, the motorized barstool idea was hatched as Paquette, Brandt and other classmates perched on barstools at Euclid Hall in downtown Denver. They chatted about starting a mechanical engineering club.

“We thought what better way to combine (socializing and classwork) than to build a motorized barstool,” Paquette said. “After a little research online we found this category at Bonneville and we thought, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ So we applied for UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program) and got approval in March 2011.”

The UROP grant totaled $3,600. Other funding sources included $2,100 from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, $2,000 from the College of Engineering and Applied Science and $5,000 from an anonymous donor. The students received a 50-percent discount on a $3,600 custom-built lithium battery as well as donations for materials and incidentals.

The barstool now belongs to the students; once the classwork portion of the project is completed, the university bears no liability for the vehicle or its pilots. The students spent $950 on the all-important leather suit, helmet and boots that protected Paquette.

Two other lakester racers — representing Utah and Idaho teams — competed Sunday, posting runs of 51.7 mph and 47.15 mph, respectively. They were impressed by the Denver team’s debut. The USFRA’s official timer clocked the CU Denver team at 51.9 mph.

“You’ve always got to sort the bugs out, and if you can come out and get top time on your first run that’s impressive,” said Robb Spencer, a previous record-holder from Boise, Idaho. “They have 10 times the battery I have. They’re on their way to a fast barstool.”

Peter Jenkins, PhD, professor of mechanical engineering, served as faculty adviser on the barstool project.

“When they first brought it to me I thought they were kidding,” he said. “These guys spent a lot of time working on it, getting the motor and the aerodynamics, with the casing and housing, set up on this thing.”

Jenkins knows John Bandimere, of Bandimere Speedway fame, so the team was allowed to do a couple test runs at the Morrison track.

A key element was the battery built by Tennessee-based Lithium Pros. Lithium batteries are about half the weight of lead-acid batteries and deliver high-torque energy to the motor. It’s a 12-volt battery, per USFRA rules, but the CU Denver barstool battery supplies 270 pounds of torque — comparable to an older-model Ford Mustang.

The problem with such output is instability, Jenkins said. To add a component to control the instability would have likely cost another $5,000 — beyond the students’ budget.

Regardless, Jenkins was impressed that the students fixed the solenoid and steering difficulties on the fly. “That’s an engineering challenge; that’s what we do,” he said. “That’s the reason we get an education, so we can figure those things out.”

Caldwell said, “The big learning lesson was ‘don’t ignore potential problems.'”

Caldwell, Brandt and Paquette are all Army veterans, each having spent time in Iraq (Paquette also in Afghanistan). The military training has served them well both in class and on special projects.

“There’s a different mentality,” Paquette said of veterans who are students. “Like it’s not so much about partying and doing everything. It’s like get in there and get a degree — a little more serious.”

Paquette, who aspires to be a prototype vehicle tester, is in CU Denver’s innovative Boots to Suits program. By being in the service, he said, “you’ve learned already what it takes to be successful.”

As any good soldiers would, Paquette and Brandt scouted the Barstool Nationals last year to survey the competition. “We saw the guy (who holds the current lakester record) race,” said Brandt, who graduated this summer and is now a graduate student at the University of Kansas. “We mocked up (a chassis) that was pretty similar to it. It’s kind of evolved off that.”

It’s clear that the Denver engineers have caught, as the barstool veterans call it, a bad case of “salt fever.”

Paquette said he has the itch and will be back next year, again aiming for the record books. Perhaps by birthright, the Rapid River, Mich., native has speed in his blood.

On the white basin after his 45 seconds of heart-pounding acceleration, Paquette walked stiff-legged and half covered in salt. A day that was filled with adversity ended with just one more hard knock.

“It is what it is,” said the barstool bomber. “I’m going to go ice my butt.”

(Photo: Barstool pilot Eric Paquette gets a push-start from fellow CU Denver students David Brandt and Sean Caldwell at the start of his lakester-class run at the Barstool Nationals at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.)

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