‘Dawgzooka’ blasts out Saluki pride

By Gus Bode

It is a tactical maneuver.

The barrel must be correctly positioned.

The speed of the machine must be perfect.

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It is halftime at the game where Josh Warren would land the bank shot to end all bank shots and give the Salukis a 61-60 victory over Southwest Missouri State. A scientific trio is at the side entrance to the Arena floor.

The driver has two minutes and 30 seconds – no more, no less.

The machine moves fast since the engine was replaced, a daunting 4 mph.

The pilot is a former tank driver. The field general, so to speak, is a former nuclear submarine driver. They work as a team dodging targets and synchronizing moves.

They are in charge of the newly constructed “Dawgzooka,” a tank-like machine that delivers T-shirts to crazed Saluki fans during men’s basketball games in the SIU Arena.

The story originates from a course taught under the guidance of Martin Hebel, an SIUC electrical systems assistant professor. The process spanned the length of the fall semester, with seven students working on and off on it.

Tim Byrnes, a former tank driver with the U.S. Army based in Fort Knox, Ky., wields his remote control like a vice grip cautiously maneuvering through crowds, doors and other barriers. Three cloth projectiles lay on top of the machine. An old SIU police bomb disposal unit functions as the chassis. The machine is a mechanical Frankenstein, with its parts and pieces spliced and connected by students like Byrnes.

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“It has a life of its own,” Byrnes said.

This is their monster, a machine that shoots T-shirts out at a rate of 70 mph.

Hebel, wanting to let his students build something of practical use, came up with the “Zooka.” Initially, it was designed to shoot golf balls, but then they realized its potential for corporate sponsorship.

Soon, the machine was officially sponsored by Jimmy John’s. The students originally planned to fire submarine sandwiches into the SIU Arena stands. However, that idea was scraped after a staff member feared the sandwiches would pose a threat to the fans’ safety.

The mechanics of the machine are simple – at least to Byrnes. The linear actuator raises and lowers the barrel. The solenoid, which helps control the electrical current, triggers and tugs at the plunger releasing the air from the CO2 cartridge. The CO2 unleashes the 130 pounds of pressure that hurls T-shirts up to 75 yards.

The name was adapted from the “Bratzooka” of the Midwest League’s Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. That monster flings bratwurst.

Byrnes is checking the controls. Hebel is listing off what needs to be double-checked. Dan Prevett, a student in Hebel’s class, is standing and watching – he is about to assist in loading the machine in front of 6,826 fans.

This is his first time.

Paul Sarvela, dean of the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, remembers the first time they put the Dawgzooka in front of the fans in the Arena.

“My palms were probably sweating more than theirs were,” Sarvela said.

Now, the machine is a shining light of the college’s achievements and Sarvela couldn’t be happier that it is his school’s contribution to the halftime tradition at SIUC.

They flick on the new blue fluorescent light positioned between the barrels. This was added over break. They turn on the orange warning siren. Hebel says that fans walk past the machine behind the stands and yell out “there’s the Dawgzooka.”

Byrnes moves it front to back. Since the addition of the new motor the controller has been real sensitive, but Byrnes, a seasoned tank driver, knows its power. They move the gun past SIU mascot Brown Dawg, who imitates loading the gun before each blast.

By one of the baskets on the sidelines, they wait for their queue after the performance of little gymnasts who are tumbling to the James Brown classic, “Living in America.”

Hebel, the dedicated field general, moves off to the side to watch, he only goes onto the floor if he has to. Hebel admits he gets nervous, but knows if he has to go on he goes, he has the heart of a general who will do what it takes to perform.

Byrnes, the outspoken driver, says that he doesn’t get nervous, but then pauses – and waves his hand like someone is explaining that the ground is unstable.

“Well maybe just a little nervous,” he said.

The children have just wound down, opening the opportunity for the crowd to witness the mechanical prowess of this machine. Byrnes jumps into action. Immediately an arena staff member tells him that the teams are coming back on the court. There will be no time to perform.

Byrnes looks at Prevett and then to Hebel with a stunned and disappointed look. They now move to the sidelines.

Prevett loads a T-shirt. Brown Dawg pokes the inside of the barrel mimicking loading the muzzle with gunpowder.

“Whoa” Byrnes belts out. The T-shirt is arching over the crowd and lands into a sea of hands. They move the machine to a different spot. They fire again. Another yell from Byrnes and the T-shirt lands into another set of anxious fans.

Just as quickly as the machine has rolled out onto the court it slides off. Next time there will be music or sound attached to it, Byrnes promises.

“We got upstaged by the little ones,” he said.

Hebel reminds Byrnes, the children always go long. Byrnes understands. There is no bitterness from the team.

Next time they will be at half court. But for now, it’s back to Hebel’s truck bed and back to the Engineering Building.

Reporter Moustafa Ayad can be reached at [email protected]

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