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Here comes the Sun: Solar-powered race cars make a stop in Alton

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2010 -  Tommy Tran was drenched in sweat and in desperate need of a restroom when he pulled into the parking lot Thursday afternoon at the National Great Rivers Museum in East Alton.

But before he could get out of the driver's seat and sprint for relief, he had to wait for his support team to lift the roof off his car, a 375-pound sun-powered spaceship on wheels named the Solar Miner VII.

For Tran, and his engineering classmates from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, it was just another manic Sun-day at the American Solar Challenge.

The cross-country rally "ray-ce" features fully powered solar cars designed by some of the country's top engineering schools. The drivers passed through St. Louis on Thursday en route to the day's checkpoint, the lock and dam on the banks of the Mississippi in neighboring Alton.

Tran, like the 14 other drivers on the leg, spent nearly five hours in the cramped cockpit of his team's car, sans air conditioning, on a day when the heat index peaked in the low 90s. Even so, the mechanical engineering major said he loved every minute of it.

"It's definitely an adrenaline rush the whole way," he said. "There's nothing like it."

The 1,200-mile race, which began in Broken Arrow, Okla., on Sunday and finishes Saturday in Naperville, Ill., is part "Cannonball Run" and part "Real Genius," a friendly competition that fuels innovation and fosters teamwork among talented engineering students.



The race also is a sight to see, considering the trail of disbelieving looks from motorists it has left in its wake while making its way across middle America.

"You get lots of waves, people on their camera phones, people just stopping and staring," said Jon Olson, who drove the University of Minnesota team car to a second-place finish in Thursday's leg. "I even heard that somebody made a phone call to the police saying there was an alien spaceship broken down on the side of the road."

At the Alton checkpoint, team cars were greeted by a crowd numbering around 100 and a PA system blaring some carefully selected racing tunes, among them War's "Low Rider" and the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun."

First across the finish line on Thursday was the team car from the University of Michigan, the overall leader.


Driver Ryan Mazur, who is entering his senior year at Michigan, said the Solar Challenge is a unique opportunity for engineering students to see how well their ideas work outside of the lab. Teams spend two years designing and building their car, raising money from sponsors and training.

"We put a lot of time into preparing," Mazur said. "We actually ran a whole mock race a few weeks ago. Basically, the last two months of our lives have been spent preparing for this race. It's a good feeling to be doing so well."

Solar racing is similar to any other forms of auto racing in that drivers and crewmembers try to make their car run as efficiently as possible. The difference is that the sun is the only source of fuel.

Drivers work with a lead and chase car communicating over the radio in an effort to cover miles in the most efficient manner. That means calculated decisions about when to use the car's reserve battery power, which can only be stored using the car's solar array for two hours before and after each leg.

"The biggest difference from a real car is that it accelerates very slowly," said Mazur. "It's hard to make it up hills sometimes. Other than that, it handles really well. It handles better than most road vehicles. It's got a really stiff suspension. I can take corners faster than our chase vehicle most of the times."

That's saying nothing of the superficial differences. A solar car looks more like a speedboat on wheels, or something out of "The Jetsons," than it does an actual gas-guzzler.

The Michigan car is the heaviest in this year's race, topping out at 700 pounds, while the race's smallest is the 284-pound Apollo VI entered by Taiwan's National Kaohsiung University.

Each of the solar cars is also lower to the ground than conventional autos to minimize drag.

Creature comforts are few. As mentioned air conditioning is out, and so are stereos that might serve as a distraction to the oppressive heat. Anything that sucks electrical power makes a car less efficient.

"It is brutally hot," Minnesota's Olson said. "Yesterday, I was in there for about three hours. That was about as long as I could last. We ended up packing about three liters of water. You drink about half of it, and the rest you end up spreading on your chest."

Nate Peterson is a freelance writer who has covered sports, conventional and unconventional, for Colorado newspapers and the New York Times.