West Philly Team’s X Prize sendoff includes pom-poms, platitudes

 
West Philly pulls out. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

The West Philly Hybrid X Team, the pride of Philadelphia, leaves the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday, undertaking a most special mission.

They’re heading 600 miles away to Michigan International Speedway, site of the Knockout Round of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize. That competition’s round continues through June 30.

Teachers and students from West Philadelphia High School’s Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering comprise the team.

At noontime Wednesday, they got a big sendoff ceremony at City Hall. The Mayor and two Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders were there to wish them well.

West Philly has two cars. The Ford Focus gas-hybrid is entered in the X Prize’s mainstream category, namely, four-seat cars, with a $5 million prize for the winner in the quest for 100 mpg. And the Factory Five GTM diesel-hybrid is in one of the two alternative categories, the one for cars with side-by-side seating. There’s another for tandem front-and-back two-seaters. The prize in each alternative class is $2.5 million.

The GTM is a kit car and looks a hell of a lot like a Ford GT-40. It’s very sexy until team manager Simon Hauger fires up the 1.9-liter Volkswagen diesel engine. Then it sounds like a bread truck. Diesel exhaust occasionally wafts into the cockpit. The sporty suspension goes “crash-crash” over bumps in the pavement.

Hauger drove me from the school, which had opened in 1912. Back then, the main building, which fills an entire city block, had 5500 students. This school year—commencement was just ending as we made our way downtown—the student population numbered fewer than 900. The student body is 97 percent black. A whole lot of kids never make it to commencement.

We headed through the campus of Drexel University and straight up Market Street toward City Hall. Partway there, an alarm sounded, and Hauger expressed concern that some air hadn’t been bled from the radiator; with coolant burping into the overflow tank, there was the possibility the engine would overheat before we made it the six or seven miles downtown.

But this issue faded, so he related his history.

Simon Hauger prepares West Philly's GTM diesel-electric hybrid before the sendoff. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

As much as anyone I’ve met in a long time, Hauger exudes integrity and purpose, and it’s hard to imagine the kids not loving and admiring him. He said he studied engineering at Drexel, but during an internship with a big manufacturer—G.E. and Westinghouse both had operations in the city—he realized he wanted something else. He returned to school for a master’s in education and spent 14 years teaching math and science. He wasn’t specifically a car guy, but he picked it up and has become full-time director of the Academy’s automotive program. He’ll take the wheel of one of the team’s cars in the competition.

His hope, beyond that for a good performance, is that that the “collective push” provided by the Automotive X Prize “would drive the industry forward,” he said.

We pulled within sight of City Hall, a massive Second-Empire structure.

“There’s William Penn!”

William Penn is way up above City Hall. Mayor Nutter was somewhere inside, and he would soon squeeze into the GTM's tight, un-limolike passenger's seat. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

How it’s possible to miss a 27-ton bronze statue more than 500 feet up from the street, atop what for 7 years (1901 to 1908) was the world’s tallest habitable building, I don’t know; but I missed it. Philly has lots of gleaming glass towers of recent vintage but none of the early 20th-century landmark skyscrapers that abound in New York, Detroit, and Chicago. This lack is owing to the gentleman’s agreement that no structure would surpass the height of City Hall. It wasn’t until 1987 that the 61-story One Liberty Place was erected.  

We went around to the northwest corner of the square, passed through the mouth of a driveway, and parked. Hauger was supposed to meet the mayor and take him on the very short trip along the building’s west side to the site of the ceremony itself. I swung my feet over the door sill and got out.

While standing around before the ceremony was supposed to start, I shot the breeze with a local radio reporter, who guaranteed the mayor would be late.

“What’s the mayor’s name?”

Michael Nutter,” he said.

“Is he Democrat or Republican?”

“Are you kidding? A large Eastern city? Of course, he’s a Democrat.”

Lots of people were massing, and it seemed like a good idea to interview someone besides another reporter. I found myself talking to Florence Palmer, who said her 15-year-old son, Shamere, was part of the team. Shamere appeared on cue. He was tall and solid, and it was no surprise when he said he plays football. His little brother, 2-year-old Shaquan, had him by the leg and wouldn’t let go. Shamere described his first in the Academy’s program. He had started by sweeping up around the shop and was assigned to the diesel-electric GTM, which he simply called “the black car.”

Jerry DiLossi, the program’s technical advisor, encouraged him to join the team.

“I’m able to visit places and get somewhere in life,” Shamere told me. “If football doesn’t work out, then I know a little bit of autos, and I can put a couple of dollars in my pocket. My mom told me it was a good idea to take it up.”

I told Shamere I’d be seeing him next week at MIS. Then I found myself talking with Serrett Bailey, whose colorful skirt was familiar from the shop. She said her 16-year-old son, Darmell, was second in order among her four kids, who range from 21 to 9 years old. (The author Jason Fagone, following West Philly for a forthcoming book, said Darmell is the quietest guy in the whole operation.) Serrett came to Philadelphia from Jamaica about 30 years ago; the last time she went back was in 1985. She works as a floor clerk at Marshall’s, the department store.

Serrett, Darmell, and Newell Bailey | Baggy Paragraphs photo

We were soon joined by her husband, Newell, who also had a Jamaican accent. He said he’s a laid-off supervisor at a hotel.

It was Newell who’d encouraged Darmell to get involved.

“I love it,” Newell said. “I’m very proud. Why not get him into something that can be of benefit to him in later years?”

Darmell drifted up and posed for a picture with his folks, but he was keeping his thoughts to himself.

Mayor Nutter finally made his way to the microphone, and the sendoff ceremony got going. During the next 15 minutes, the Mayor introduced various members of the team for their turns to address the crowd. The kids who spoke did a very nice job. And the Eagles’ cheerleaders performed with excellence.

When it was all over, it found myself alone with the Mayor, so I stuck out my tape recorder.

Q. What was your impression of riding in the car?

A. It’s a little tighter than what I’m normally used to, but I think once you get used to getting in it, it’s great.

Q. It sounds like a delivery truck—I don’t know if you noticed that.

A. No. I was just excited about being in the car and what the kids have done.

Q. It’s not your normal VIP limo at any rate.

A. Well, I wouldn’t know much about that. But I’ve heard about those limos.

[Here, I became overwhelmed with self-consciousness about interviewing the Democratic mayor of a big Eastern city in a completely informal situation, with none of the numerous other reporters shouting questions or showing any interest in him at all. I couldn’t think of anything else to ask him but didn’t want to let the opportunity pass. A long “duh” moment followed, and I apologized, saying I was used to interviewing auto execs, which isn’t true at all; I never interview auto execs; and in fact, within the last few weeks, I’d interviewed two Congressmen and the Assistant U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the Mayor of Ann Arbor. Mayor Nutter graciously waited for me to get my rings around my pistons.]

Q. What’s your general takeaway from the—?

A. I think the larger issue here is that these young people have committed themselves to being involved in something very, very positive. They’ve had some success in the past, which they’re now building on. The fact that there are only 22 teams left, and they’re one of them, is an achievement in and of itself. But it also demonstrates the power of what young people are all about, and when they’re focused, they have good adults around them, they can accomplish almost anything.

Mayor Michael Nutter sends off West Philly team members to the X Prize. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

Thursday morning’s Inquirer carried a long piece on West Philly. The reporter had spent a couple of days with the team, and he managed not to succumb to the fallacy, mentioned by Hauger and volunteer coordinator Ann Cohen, that attributes the kids’ utter redemption to their work on the cars.

There has been extensive media coverage, and Hauger spoke of an NPR reporter’s surprise, on visiting late one afternoon, that so few kids were around. Where were they?

“Detention,” Hauger said.

“Isn’t that incongruous?” the reporter asked.

Hauger and Cohen now laugh because he admits not knowing what “incongruous” means. But the plain fact is that parental support could generally be better, and the students’ commitment levels vary.

As I’d told Newell Bailey, and maybe Florence and Shamere Palmer, too, it’s hard to predict the X Prize’s real payoff. Maybe the connections made today will solidify in 30 years.

It can take that long for incongruities to be worked out.

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One thought on “West Philly Team’s X Prize sendoff includes pom-poms, platitudes

  1. Great story, great program. A creative way to get students involved in learning and making a future.
    Incongruous may be the only way to go these days. Someone has to light a fire under these kids and give them a shot. So glad you’re giving it some publicity.

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