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Four Hopkins students are hoping that the Red Bull Soapbox Race will be a snap for their turtle-mobile

October 11, 2007|By Katy O'Donnell | Katy O'Donnell,Sun reporter

The four Johns Hopkins University graduate students were analyzing their latest project. On top of regular classes and research, the material science and engineering majors had devoted what little free time they had to an endeavor that stretched their expertise.

The result: Timmy the Turtle.

Teammates Greg Fritz, 25; Travis De Journett, 25; Janice Lin, 26; and Matt Simone, 23, gathered yesterday morning to show off Timmy, the turtle-shaped cart that will make its official debut Saturday at the Red Bull Soapbox Race in Providence, R.I. Fritz will attempt to steer Timmy down a steep quarter-mile track in a time trial against 59 other bizarrely decorated human-powered vehicles, which Red Bull, an energy drink, predicts could reach speeds up to 35 mph.

"Our sights are set on winning," Fritz says. "But - just getting through the turns would be great."

"You getting back in one piece would be great, Greg," Simone chimes in. "Let's keep it realistic."

The grand prize is a VIP trip to a NASCAR event. But, on the off chance they do win, the students say they'll opt for the $7,500 cash equivalent.

Soapbox race competitors will be judged on speed, creativity and showmanship.

Timmy is definitely creative: He has been meticulously crafted, from his raised-shell detailing to a head that turns with steering and a wagging red tongue ("Michael Jordan-style," Simone says).

But the students are still fine-tuning the showmanship part.

"As engineers, our talents are not in the drama/dance department," Fritz says. "So, uh, we're working on it."

The leading concept so far: a skit in which one teammate throws a Red Bull can onto the track in front of the turtle, which promptly hurtles down after it.

"That's a good idea," Simone says. "You gotta play it up."

The students may seem intent on racking up points, but they insist that's not the real point.

"We just like to do things that are outside the normal lab life day to day," Simone explains.

Fritz says he is racing in part to feel like a kid again.

"You don't get to build a racecar anymore; you're not a little kid in Boy Scouts," he says. "It's just been fun getting to build something with our hands and race it."

De Journett, who previously participated in a Red Bull Flugtag event - which involves contestants launching themselves off high perches in homemade "flying" contraptions - learned about this year's soapbox race through an online ad. The group submitted several cart designs and found out in July that itwould be able to participate.

Why the turtle? The team was attracted to its simple round shape, but the final decision came down to Red Bull; Timmy the Turtle was the only design accepted.

"We submitted a crab, for Chesapeake Bay - you know, local color," Fritz says. "We really wanted to do that one, but ... "

Simone sides with Red Bull. "With all those arms, are you kidding me?"

The turtle may have stood out as the easier construction option, but it still took way too long to complete, De Journett says. The group can't agree on just how long; "60 to 80 hours?" Lin offers, but the others shake their heads. "No, no, longer than that," they say.

Though they study engineering, the teammates doubt that they have an edge on the competition.

"We don't really - we're not `mechies,'" Simone says, referring to specialists in mechanical engineering.

"I think the only way we could have had an advantage would be if there were a really strict weight requirement, and then we could have gone kind of exotic with our materials," De Journett says.

He speculates that being graduate students may even hurt them, because they "don't have the money to pump into it."

Teams have been known to drop thousands of dollars on their carts, he says. The Hopkins team has spent $600 so far, with some help from the Greene Turtle in Fells Point.

With materials such as chicken wire and plastic foam, the project required little technical know-how, says Fritz, pointing out that the team used no equations. They also had no precise strategy for factors like aerodynamics.

He adds that some of their competitors have raced before.

"Yeah, I don't think we have any advantages," Fritz says. "I think we're probably the underdogs."

Lin pipes up.

"You know, I think Red Bull wants everyone to crash miserably because that's more entertaining to the crowd."

The others nod in agreement, chuckling.

"So, if we don't win, maybe we'll get on SportsCenter by having a bad wreck," Fritz says. "I just want to be on SportsCenter. That's all I want."

katy.odonnell@baltsun.com

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