The Edison2 Very Light Car team gradually came together after founder Oliver Kuttner first heard about the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize in the spring of 2007. The $10-million purse for achieving 100 mpg or the equivalent got his attention. The prize is divided among three classes of entries; the Edison2 team is the only one to enter all three of them.
By August of 2007, financing the effort himself, Kuttner was brainstorming with design director Ron Mathis on what type of car to build. Chief of race operations Kevin Doran, a sports-prototype racer from Cincinnati, and Barnaby Wainfan, aerodynamics Fellow at Northrop Grumman, joined the project.
The rest of the team—which Mathis called “liberal-leaning”—is made up of die-hard racing guys, while the communications effort is in the capable hands of a chiropractor.
These are the men who, in Kuttner’s words, have “stumbled on something big.”
It’s Baggy Paragraphs’s privilege to present them in a series over the next several days.
Ron Mathis, Design Director
“We’re basically a race team,” Mathis said. “The normal state of a race team is to have everything in pieces.” So in other words, I wouldn’t be driving or riding in one of the four cars created so far.
The native of southern England explained that, originally, he just needed a job.
Mathis is a 1985 graduate of Polytechnic of the South Bank, now London South Bank University, with an emphasis in engineering product design. While still a student he talked his way into being a fabricator and machinist on the ADA Engineering team that campaigned a Gebhardt-Ford in the FIA World Endurance Championship’s Group C2 Sports Prototype class. He tasted success quickly, when the team placed eighth overall and won the C2 class at Le Mans in 1986. Because he was “the only bloke in the place that did any drawing,” the design work went through him. He picked up additional valuable experience when he worked on Emerson Fittipaldi’s F1 effort.
Mathis came to the United States in 1993. He had found himself divorced, broke, and living at home with his mum when a phone call summoned him to work at TRP Racing, in Covington, Tennessee, preparing “customer cars” that wealthy sportsmen would enter in races. From this fresh start, he landed at Doran Racing, in Lebanon, Ohio, where he worked on projects for Audi, Jaguar, and Dodge. Not only did he contribute designs in the shop, but he also served as race engineer at the track. He led the design of the American Le Mans Series Ford GTR, a project Kuttner spearheaded.
Mathis has come to share Kuttner’s obsession with the challenge of winning the X Prize. Much of the concept for the Very Light Car’s innovative in-wheel suspension was Mathis’s. While there’s always room for a breakthrough, Mathis still says, “I think it’s important to respect what went before.”
He mentions that when a NASCAR Grand-Am Series official named Don Hayward looked at the Very Light Car, he discerned that “one strand of its heritage” was from Frank Lockhart’s Indianapolis-built 1928 Stutz Black Hawk land-speed record car.
Mathis’s wife and 14-year-old son are in Indianapolis. He usually flies his Beech Baron home on the weekends, a trip of around two and a half hours. He said he acquired the twin-engine plane last fall after a stormy passage over West Virginia in his single-engine Bonanza left him pondering his mortality.
I asked if the Baron does around 200 mph.
“And change,” he said.