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East Los Angeles College students prove their pedal power in Montana

The odds were against them — and the Rolling Huskies knew it. The East Los Angeles College team was the only community college on the roster of the Human Powered Vehicle Challenge earlier this month. Top university engineering programs from 16 other schools as far away as India and Egypt would be competing in the annual American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ event in Bozman, Montana. But that did not stop the ELAC students from spending months pouring their energy into creating the fastest pedal-powered vehicle they could conjure.

“We’re not at the university level,” team captain, Juan Ayala, said, taking a break during the frenzied week before the competition. “But we do have plenty of imagination and determination.” What they lack in education and resources, the team makes up for in heart and real-world experience, maintains Ayala, 30, who recently returned to school after six years in the military as an army helicopter mechanic.

Juan Ayala top left and other teammates from the Rolling HuskiesThe idea that East Los Angeles students could compete against top programs came from the team’s faculty advisor Brian Vasquez, 33, who just a few years ago had himself been a student at the college. When the recession hit and he was laid off from his firm, he found himself unemployed and needing a college degree if he wanted a similar job. ELAC provided a bridge so he could go on for a mechanical engineering degree from Cal State-LA. “I don’t know how my life would have turned out if it had not been for community college,” he said. Vasquez maintained his connection to ELAC, becoming a part-time instructor, and was interested in helping other students any way he could.

The Human Powered Vehicle Challenge seemed like the perfect opportunity. But when he called a meeting only two students showed up. It turns out, that was enough. “It was groundbreaking,” said Albert Venegas, 20. “You know don’t know where this is going to end. Two people? Alright, we can do this.”

Through word of mouth the team grew to more than 20 students. Named for ELAC’s mascot, the Rolling Huskies are a reflection of the Monterey Park school’s student population: members are Hispanic or Asian, immigrants or children of immigrants, and almost exclusively the first in their families to pursue higher education. Some are returning to school after years in careers, such as a 41-year-old machinist who manufactured medical equipment. Others are recent high school graduates who were not ready for a four-year college and ELAC provided an opportunity to continue studies.

The basement of ELAC’s engineering department was transformed into the Rolling Huskies command center. The lab is scrappy — the heavy tools consist of a lathe, band saw, and drill press that look straight out of the 1950s — but the students have proved resourceful. They got a software company to donate a drafting program to stimulate 3-D models that show how vehicle designs would respond to different conditions. A local printshop provided shirts that the team sold. Martin’s Bike Shop in East LA helped out with parts and provided  expertise.

And the Rolling Huskies worked ferociously on the project. While other students were off enjoying Spring break, they put in 12-hour plus days in the ELAC basement. To minimize time away they would take turns going on lunch breaks, and even brought in Ayala’s brother, who is a student at Cordon Bleu, to cook a few meals. Weekends were no break: On Sundays they meet at 8 a.m. in Montebello for bike rides of up to 100 miles to get into top physical shape to race the vehicle.

With one week left before the Montana competition, team members trickled into the ELAC workspace on a Friday, arriving for the most part with their own bikes. All, with the exception of Elvira Martinez, were men. (The team only has two female members, something that Vasquez said he wants to change.) The walls were lined with lists and schedules, and the focus of their attention — an aerodynamic three-wheeled semi-recumbent vehicle — was just about complete.

Travel plans were on the agenda. While other teams would arrive by plane, their bus trip was more than three days roundtrip, longer than the actual time they would spend at the competition. What’s more, due to limited funding, only 10 team members would have their trips covered to Montana and they needed to figure out who would go.

Martinez, 20, would definitely be on the bus since the competition rules require a woman races a leg. As she checked out design specs on a laptop, she admitted that she was a bit scared. Not at the prospect of racing a hand-built vehicle with asthma, but because she would be leaving California for the first time she can remember and heading north to Montana.

Martinez arrived from Mexico as a two year old and has never been anywhere else in the United States. The idea of competing in the cold, potentially the snow, was frightening. But this young woman, who had dreams of being an astronaut but turned to mechanical engineering when she found out she was too short, was not deterred.

In Montana, the Huskies rolled their vehicle out in the shadow of snowcapped mountains. All of the months of work appeared to be paying off, until the vehicle veered into a 360-barrel role when Ayala was sprinting. Team members screamed in a moment of panic, but the safety precautions functioned under pressure. Ayala only received minor abrasions and kept riding.

At a banquet that night, places were announced: Rolling Huskies received 6th in the utility competition, 7th in speed, and 9th overall. For Ayala, reaching the goal he and the team had worked toward for a year of placing in the top 10 was exhilarating, but the most memorable moment had already happened.

Earlier that day, when he was driving the vehicle and noticed judges were cheering for them, shouting East Los Angeles College.  “Everyone there was at the university level and we were a community college,” he said. “That joy, that pride, the hard work paying off and representing. That was awesome.”

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2 thoughts on “East Los Angeles College students prove their pedal power in Montana”

  1. As a former student of ELAC who has made it to the Ivy Leagues, I never forgot my time spent at ELAC. I am proud of these students accomplishments. They have big dreams that are no different from students at state colleges, private universities or Ivy League universitites. Most Americans hear East LA and think of only negative stereotypes. The Rolling Huskies are doing their part to squash those misconceptions.

  2. Wow. Awesome story! You guys did great, I can’t wait to hear more from you young engineers. Maybe you can start working on a laser that shoots cars that run stop signs!