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Balloon Car Contest at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

On December 18, 1998, a balloon car contest was held at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, USA. The details unfold below.

The Event
The Challenge
The Cars
The Results
The Winners
The Credits

Inflatable Technology at its Finest?

by Debbie Oisboid

It's a toy. It's a decoration. It's a... car?

The first ever JPL Balloon Car Contest was held on Friday, December 18, 1998. Despite the high winds earlier in the week, the temperature was mild and the sky slightly overcast; perfect weather for racing. Except these race cars were unlike anything you've ever seen before.

According to the rules, each entrant was allowed two "official" helium-style balloons. They could be modified in any way as long as they provided the only propulsion. There were two main propulsion methods: inflation and elastic. But from those two classifications sprung an amazing range of designs.

Some used twisted balloons to spin a propeller or wheel. Others wrapped the elastic around a wheel axle. There were those whose inflated balloons blew a stream of air behind for mild jet-propulsion. Still other inflated balloons blew on a pinwheel-style turbine wheel. Yet each one was unique from the others.

The contest was quite an occasion, and not only due to the unique qualities of the vehicles. Well over 200 people skipped lunch to watch the event, which featured 27 official entries from 24 registered contestants. It was covered by the Pasadena Star News (12/19/98 edition) as well as the Valley Sun (12/24/98 edition). Organizer and arranger Paul MacNeal, through contact with Joan Horvath and Alice Wessen, was able to acquire the services of Glenn Beardsley of Uncle Milton Industries, and Steve Pennington of the Mattel Corporation (Hot Wheels Division) to judge the tournament.

Announcer Terry Scharton did a superb job. First he had each contestant talk about his or her car. Then he reiterated that description into the microphone so even the folks 100 feet away could picture it. He also went to the trouble of explaining some of the science behind each propulsion method, and added a few jokes for good measure.

The official winner was entitled "Wrapped Around the Axle," which pretty much describes its design. This car, designed by Chris Stell and Gene Wester, zipped over 70 feet on its first (official) run before slewing sideways into a wall. On its second (unofficial) run, it managed to go nearly 97 feet!

Mike Blakely's "Bottle Rocket" was the third place finisher. It had a truly unique design which incorporated two mechanisms. The body was a clear plastic tube, about 6 feet long, with a cone-shaped piston inside. The balloons were inflated at one end and pushed the piston down the tube. A fishing line was tied to the piston and wrapped around the wheel axle, providing thrust. On its first (official) run, it had a slight "steering" problem and ran into a wall after going only 47 feet. But on its second (unofficial) run, it managed to dash over 109 feet!

Some other unusual vehicles included The Anvil and the Mars Roller. The Anvil, by Andrew Berkun, was a late entry, arriving 20 minutes after the contest had concluded. It weighed over 180 pounds! That's because the designer was literally sitting on a skateboard with the two inflated balloons doing their best to move that mass the grand distance of 3/4 of an inch forward.

Hong Yuan's Mars Roller was a two-liter cola bottle with the stretched balloons twisted down the center of it. With an external "third" wheel to react the torque, the "rubber bands" rotated the bottle, pulling the vehicle nearly 22 feet.

The Balloon HQ web site will host photos of all the contest entries, as well as a few words from their creators. Special thanks go out to contest organizer Paul MacNeal and to all those who assisted with this event: Dina MacNeal - Check in. Robbie Stephenson - Car measurer. Mark Johnson - Tabulator. Chris Landry - Time keeper. Chris Salvo - Distance measurer. Yuko Shibata - Recording secretary. Mark Balzer - Still photography and web page design. David Randall - Video photography. Yuko Shibata - Certificate donation. And of course, to all those whose creativity and ingenuity provided such a successful event!

The Challenge

On November 9, 1998, NASA engineer Paul MacNeal issued this challenge to the employees of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Date: Mon, 09 Nov 1998 17:27:07 -0800
To: All Personnel
From: Paul MacNeal
Subject: Invitation to Have Some Fun

To all JPL employees and contractors,

On December 18 1998, the Mechanical Engineering Section will be hosting a 
BALLOON CAR contest in front of Building 180 from noon to 1:00 PM.  The
intention of this contest is to have some fun and at the same time show
off our creative abilities.  A BALLOON CAR is any vehicle which travels
on the course using one or two officially supplied balloons for power.

The simple rules, including the judging categories, and entry form are 
shown below.  Simply fill out the entry form and make arrangements to pick 
up your official balloons before the deadline of December 15th.  A maximum 
of two balloons can be used on the car, but a total of four balloons are
provided to help with preliminary testing of the car.


Announcing the First Annual JPL Section 352 Balloon Car Contest

How far do you think a car powered by two balloons could travel?  Come find
out on December 18th from 12:00 to 1:00 next to the water fountain in front
of Building 180.  Entry forms are available (see bottom) to participate in
this fun, entertaining contest.  The contest is open to JPL employees (or
contractors) and their immediate family.  Each entrant will receive two 
official red nine inch helium quality latex balloons to be used in the
design of the car, which can be picked up in person or mailed.  Two
additional balloons will be provided for testing.  

A grand prize trophy will be presented to the designer of the car that
stays on the course and finishes the farthest distance from the starting
point.  In addition, certificates will be awarded for various categories
listed below.


   1. Completed entry forms are to be turned into the address listed
      below no later than December 15, 1998.  Car entries can be operated
      by substitute "drivers" if proper instructions are provided.
      Participants are not to work on their entry during working hours.

   2. The officially provided balloons are to be the only source of energy
      for the car.  A maximum of two balloons may be used on the car.  No
      external sources of energy are permitted including, but not limited
      to, push starts, blowing on the car, batteries, solar cells, etc.

   3. The balloons may only be blown up using lung power by the car 
      operator.  No other gases, such as Xenon, may be used.

   4. During the initial release of the gas (at the starting line), care
      should be taken to not enhance or diminish the performance of the car.
   5. The course consists of a concrete surface 15 feet wide by 160 feet 
      long.  The course starts out flat and then goes slightly uphill.

   6. No limitations on size, weight, or material composition are given.

Certificates will be awarded for: Fastest (estimated peak rate), Longest
Running Time, Heaviest (that actually moves), Lightest, Largest, Smallest,
Most Artistic, Most Creative, and Most Unusual Design.

Send comments, questions, or completed entry forms to: Paul MacNeal via
e-mail at paul.d.macneal@jpl.nasa.gov; or phone at (818)354-7824; or mail
to JPL, 4800 Oak Grove Blvd, M/S 157-410, Pasadena, CA  91109, or visit at

Print out the entry form below and mail or FAX it to Paul MacNeal.



Name: ___________________________    Age (if under 18) : ____

M/S: ________

Phone #: _________

e-mail Address: ______________________

Title of Entry (be creative): ____________________________________

Note: Print owner's name and title of entry somewhere on the car.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = 

FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY                               ENTRY NUMBER ________

Weight: _________grams

Length: _________inches    Width: ________inches     Height: _______inches

Distance Travelled: _________feet ________inches

Running Time: __________seconds   

Estimated Maximum Speed: ___________feet/second

Creativity Score: _____  Unusuality Score: _____    

Artistic Score: _______

Other Comments:

With just thirty weekday evenings and five weekends to design, prototype and build their vehicles, JPL's competitive types responded in force, put their thinking caps on, and burned the midnight oil. Besides, they figured, by the time the contest ended they would still have six days left to do their Christmas shopping :-)

The Cars

Twenty-seven balloon cars made it to the starting line.
Click on the individual thumbnails for details about each car.

Car #1 Car #2 Car #3 Car #4 Car #5
Car #6 Car #7 Car #8 Car #9 Car #10
Car #11 Car #12 Car #13 Car #14 Car #15
Car #16 Car #17 Car #18 Car #19 Car #20
Car #21 Car #22 Car #23 Car #24 Car #25
Car #26 Car #27

The Results

The complete, official contest results are shown below.
Click on the individual car names for details about each car.

Driver Name Car Name Mass
Distance Traveled
Running Time
1 Homer Hummel EIS Flyer 109 19 12 3.5 11.50 10.12
2 Michael Shibata My Other Car is a Honda 32 11 10 4 6.67 8.91
3 Dean/Debbie Oisboid DD Mean Machine 18 11 13 4.5 15.25 1.12
4 Guy Raz Swales Flywheel Flyer 222 8 6.75 2.75 0.83 3.80
5 Paul Richter Boopmobile 10 12 9 6.75 28.75 20.19
6 Terry Scharton Turbo Dasher 80 12.5 12 6 22.67 19.74
7 Terry Scharton Turbo Creeper 80 11 6.75 9 0.17 0.50
8 Ray Baker Lite Ray 202 14 7.25 4.75 7.50 5.76
9 Ken Erickson Let's Eat 232 27.5 7 10.5 70.42 21.36
10 Leo Bister Square Dancer 392 12 18.5 12 4.50 4.50
11 Hong Yuan Mars Roller 92 11.5 12 3.75 21.08 15.17
12 Mike Blakely Bottle Rocket 394 72 6 4.3 47.92 6.16
13 Kim Aaron Jetmobile 32 5.5 2.75 1.5 12.25 5.65
14 Sharon Harriman Rubberta 58 21 4.75 4.75 4.83 1.68
15 David Farless Cold Confusion 325 9.75 3.75 9.75 2.50 5.41
16 Amy Holst BVI 40 8 2.5 2.75 16.08 12.23
17 Dept ASIS Little Balloon That Could 48 10.25 2.25 4.25 13.17 13.35
18 Chris Wrigley Wrigley Express 128 7 4.5 2.25 31.67 7.42
19 Chris Stell/Gene Wester Wrapped Around the Axle 433 33 5.25 5.25 70.75 8.34
20 Dina MacNeal Pussycat Express 17 11 6 4 15.33 5.86
21 Eric Tauer/Carlos Velazquez No Title 96 5 10 1.25 0.58 1.05
22 Paul MacNeal The Red Streak 77 12 10 8 12.25 6.09
23 Kim Aaron Lego Car 206 17 4.25 2.5 21.92 9.02
24 Paul MacNeal Rubber Fueled Dragster 265 26 12 4 0.67 5.00
25 Suzanne Balzer Dream Roller 3700 22 20.5 20.5 15.00 15.51
26 Steve Fuerstenau Argonaut 200 12 8 10 18.50 10.65
27 Mark Balzer LatExpress 25 12.5 15.75 5 12.75 1.80

The unofficial contest results are shown below.
Click on the individual car names for details about each car.

Driver Name Car Name Mass
Distance Traveled
Running Time
28 Chris Stell/Gene Wester Wrapped Around the Axle 433 33 5.25 5.25 96.92 16.93
29 Mike Blakely Bottle Rocket 394 72 6 4.3 109.00 16.90
30 Andrew Berkun The Anvil 82000 14 10 25 0.06 1.50

The Winners

The winners are shown below.
Click on the individual car names for details about each car.

Award Category Driver Name Car Name Winning Figure
Farthest Distance Chris Stell/Gene Wester Wrapped Around the Axle 70 feet, 9 inches
2nd Farthest Distance Ken Erickson Let's Eat 70 feet, 5 inches
3rd Farthest Distance Mike Blakely Bottle Rocket 47 feet, 11 inches
Longest Running Time Ken Erickson Let's Eat 21.36 seconds
Fastest Dean/Debbie Oisboid DD Mean Machine >10 feet per second
Largest Mike Blakely Bottle Rocket 72 inches long
Smallest Kim Aaron Jetmobile 5.5 inches long
Heaviest Suzanne Balzer Dream Roller 3700 grams
Lightest Paul Richter Boopmobile 10 grams
Most Unusual Hong Yuan Mars Roller  
Most Creative Mike Blakely Bottle Rocket  
Most Artistic Chris Stell/Gene Wester Wrapped Around the Axle  

It is instructive to note which entries did the best in each of the three main categories of design, namely, direct use of the elastic energy (rubber band), air motor (piston, turbine), and rocket (jet thrust), since the theoretical limitations for each of these are different.

On this basis, Wrapped Around the Axle, in addition to being the contest winner, also has the greatest distance in the rubber band category. Bottle Rocket, in addition to taking third place in distance, takes first place in the air motor category. Boopmobile, in addition to being the lightest, also takes first place in distance and running time for the rocket category.

The two fastest cars, DD Mean Machine and Latexpress, were propeller-driven using wound-up (twisted, not stretched) balloons. The Dream Roller had the highest (mass)(distance) product.

The unofficial winners are shown below.
Click on the individual car names for details about each car.

Unofficial Award Category Driver Name Car Name Winning Figure
Unofficial Farthest Distance (2nd Run) Mike Blakely Bottle Rocket 109.00 feet
Unofficial 2nd Farthest Distance (2nd Run) Chris Stell/Gene Wester Wrapped Around the Axle 96.92 feet
Unofficial Heaviest (Late Entry) Andrew Berkun The Anvil 82000 grams

Unofficially, the farthest distance run was 109 feet by Mike Blakely's entry "Bottle Rocket" with second farthest going to Chris Stell's and Gene Wester's entry "Wrapped Around the Axle" at 96 feet, 11 inches. Unofficially, the heaviest entry that actually moved was Andrew Berkun's entry "The Anvil" which tipped the scales at over 180 pounds and moved 3/4 of an inch. The balloon car contest was attended by over 200 JPL employees and was covered by two newspapers. The Pasadena Star News published an article in the Saturday, December 19 edition, and The Valley Sun in the Thursday, December 24 edition.


We wish to thank the following people for their efforts in making this event a success:
Announcer: Terry Scharton (extra kudos for a super job)
Car measurer: Robbie Stephenson
Certificate donation: Yuko Shibata
Check-in: Dina MacNeal
Contest Organizer: Paul MacNeal
Distance measurer: Chris Salvo
Judges: Glenn Beardsley (Uncle Milton Industries) and Steve Pennington (Mattel Corporation - Hot Wheels Division)
Recording secretary: Yuko Shibata
Still photographer: Mark Balzer
Tabulator: Mark Johnson
Time keeper: Chris Landry
Video photographer: David Randall
Web master: Mark Balzer

Back to Balloon HQ

Comments or corrections? Send them to Mark Balzer.

MB 1/9/99