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A haven for out-of-the-classroom learners

Anne Wallace Allen 2015An unusual pair of entrepreneurs in Garden City will be taking their vegetable oil-powered pickup to the Bonneville Salt Flats in August to see if they can repeat their 2011 feat of breaking a record for speed.

Six years ago, Dave Schenker, Patrick Johnston and their Boise State University student club, Greenspeed, engineered a 1998 Chevy S10 truck to break the world record by traveling 155 miles per hour on vegetable oil at an event run by the Southern California Timing Association.

The Greenspeed club has since become Greenspeed Research, a nonprofit run by Schenker and Johnston, who studied together in Boise State’s mechanical engineering program. The two recently expanded their engine shop in Garden City to accommodate their consulting business; GSE LLC;  an internship program that now hosts three students; the solar go-kart program that Johnston oversees as part of the nonprofit; research on the Chevy that they race at Bonneville Salt Flats in August; and work on another truck that they aspire to race at the annual Baja 1000 in Mexico.

With this complicated array of projects before him, Schenker is focused right now on the Bonneville test in August. As driver, he’s come within six miles per hour of the 215-miles-per-hour record, and hope to beat it at this year’s time trials, which will be held August 12-18 on the dried lakebed on the Nevada-Utah border.

Schenker’s not doing all this to promote vehicle racing, or even to promote the use of raw vegetable oil as a fuel. Instead, his complicated quest is fueled by a desire to promote the refined version of vegetable oil, called biodiesel, and to provide educational alternatives for people who, like him, don’t find the classroom to be the ideal arrangement for learning.

Schenker himself worked in construction for 15 years before entering the mechanical engineering program at Boise State. The Greenspeed club was a way for Schenker to apply his education to real-life engineering projects. That’s the only way he can learn, Schenker said.

“Had I not started Greenspeed, I would not have graduated from Boise State, because I learn by doing,” he said. “I struggle incredibly hard to sit in a classroom and absorb information.”

Someday, he’d like the Greenspeed garage to be a place where local students in physics and other fields can visit to see engineering in action. He’d like to provide a place for others who are interested in engineering, whether they know it or not – and who didn’t find the traditional education system to be a place where they could learn what they needed.

“I don’t know how to name those folks, how to label them, but that is our target market,” Schenker said.

The record Schenker and Johnston are aiming for in August is the record for a diesel-powered truck. By breaking it with a vegetable-oil-powered truck, Schenker said, Greenspeed will be showing the world that biodiesel is a legitimate source of energy for vehicles.

Only biodiesel and vegetable oil are allowed as fuels in the race; biodiesel, which is the refined form of vegetable oil, is not.

“What we’re strictly trying to prove is that this particular energy source, plant-based in its rawest form, can beat petroleum at its own game,” Schenker said.

If they beat the speed record in August, Schenker said, he and Johnston will end a quest they started in 2011 when they broke the petroleum record with vegetable oil. They’ll retire the vegetable oil projects, and work only with  biodiesel.

They’ll also turn their attention to finding a financial partner to finish the biodiesel-powered truck they’d like to run in the Baja 1000, a brutal 1,000-mile off-road race in the desert of the Baja California peninsula. There is no prize money; the only prize is glory.

“If we can be the first biodiesel-powered trophy truck to finish the Baja 1000, that will have a large international impact,” he said.

Meanwhile, the pair recently received a patent through Boise State University for a method to optimize how two turbochargers work together, usually on a diesel engine, and GSE will try to commercialize that patent. He is raising money for the solar go-kart challenge, which fielded eight teams of students in May at Boise State University.

Schenker sees the shop as a community learning center, and the trucks as technology demonstrators, not racing vehicles.

“As a nontraditional student who worked in a skilled trade before going to engineering school, I found myself surrounded by children who knew how to take the triple integral of e to the x squared in their sleep, but didn’t know how to hold a tape measure,” he said. “I feel I have something to offer those students.”

Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.