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Posted at 9:39 p.m. PDT Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001

Quirky cars meet challenge along Sand Hill Road

Mercury News

The Sand Hill Challenge race car derby raced down Menlo Park's Sand Hill Road on Sunday with the usual mix of competitiveness and frivolity, but also with a splash of red, white and blue.

One car featured Uncle Sam, who sat on the back and waved Old Glory, and another entry was dubbed the Freedom Flyer. Both served as patriotic reminders of the tragic events of Sept. 11.

Some corporate sponsors, including big-name firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, chose not to enter cars in the competition, citing this month's terrorist attacks. Instead, Kleiner donated money to the cause.

But for the most part, the fifth annual event continued to be what it always has been -- a celebration of toy tinkering.

Gunn High School's team of 50 students built a hamster wheel, featuring a member dressed as a giant hamster spinning on the wheel mounted on top of a car frame. The contraption won the ``most whimsical'' award.

Sequoia High School entered a car covered by a giant mock keyboard and PC loaded with Microsoft Windows software. It was piloted by a mock Bill Gates, who had red devil horns and tail. Smoke billowed out from the computer, a sign that the computer was malfunctioning.

Dan'l Lewin, a Microsoft spectator, took the teasing in stride: ``It's clearly a hardware problem. Look, there's smoke billowing.''

Sponsors donated about $5,000 to enter cars. The proceeds go to groups such as Safe Ride, Plugged In and other teen mentoring programs. This year, recipients include disaster victims.

The winner of the high school division was Woodside High School, a team headed by three girls.

Stephanie Lee, captain of the 15-member Woodside team, said she was the only female driver she knew of last year. This year, though, a fair share of the high school entrants were girls.

Gary Reynolds, one of the team's supervisors, said the group's boys and girls complemented each other in designing the car. He noted that the girls dominated the team's organization, while it was younger boys who drove the ``nuts and bolts'' car construction.

Compaq was the winner among the corporate entries. In three heats before the final, Hitachi's entry was neck-and-neck with Compaq's long sleek race car, about three-hundredths of a second behind.

Hitachi was disqualified, though, when its eager pushers -- two athletic bobsledders from the U.S. 2002 Olympic team -- jumped the gun.

Compaq's car was engineered by a team under Henry Coles, from Compaq's NonStop hardware division. Coles badly wanted first place: ``I worked night and day on this,'' he said. The car was equipped with on-board computers that collected data.

Self-proclaimed geek Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist with Draper Fisher Jurvetson, introduced the firm's ``NanoCar,'' claimed to be one-billionth the size of a regular car, or one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair.

The firm's assistants, dressed in white lab frocks and goggles, handed out magnifying glasses to onlookers so that they could watch the car zoom down the track.

Contact Matt Marshall at mmarshall@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5920.

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