At Shell Eco-Marathon, victory is measured in miles per gallon

SONOMA COUNTY, Cailf. (KGO) -- Sonoma Raceway is gearing up for what may be the greenest event in motorsports: the Shell Eco-Marathon.

At a race that's free for both spectators and competitors, 99 teams of students from ten countries are competing with cars they've built from scratch -- not to go fast, but to travel for miles on just a few drops of fuel.

"We're not focused on how fast we're going, we're foc on how much energy we're consuming," said Sacramento State senior Sara Wadell, whose team is competing for the second time this year.

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To get the thousands of miles per gallon required to win, every ounce matters. So the Sacramento State team revised last year's car design by re-building it out of lighter materials.

"It's all aluminum instead of steel, so we dropped maybe 150 pounds on that," said fellow senior Nick Gasparro.

The motors are tiny: Sacramento State's packs a whopping 3 horsepower, and will reach a blazing top speed of 20 miles per hour. Shell provides the gas tank, which holds less than half a liter of fuel. Everything else has to come from the students: including a part that looks suspiciously like a 2-liter Mountain Dew bottle, mounted on the car in the next pit over.

"This is our air reservoir," explained a team member. "Because we have to have the system pressurized."

Though motorsports are often a noisy affair, this may be Sonoma Raceway's quietest event ever. As its name implies, the Shell Eco-Marathon isn't about speed -- it's about endurance -- a fact the team from St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota knows well.

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"We're coming off the world championship last year, so hoping to repeat that this year," said high school senior Alex Moeller. "It's last year's car, but new and improved."

On the event's opening day, the team took its car for a few leisurely laps around Sonoma's famous road course while other teams frantically tinkered with their vehicles, preparing them for the big nail-biter: technical inspection. From the seat belt to the steering wheel, everything has to pass before teams can race.

"We failed the rear brake test," said a despondent Camila Miglio, whose team is from San Antonio College. "We gotta go fix it. And then come back and try it again."

Win or lose, the real prize for the students is a prestigious line on their résumé -- or in some cases, a coveted college offer letter.

"For college graduates, this means some really nice job opportunities," said Shell Eco-Marathon Americas general manager Pamela Rosen.

In part, she said, colleges and employers recognize these students have learned the kind of life lessons that only come from getting your hands dirty.

"We're going slow and steady -- and hopefully, that'll win the race," Gasparro said.

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