Racing in the rays

Elaine Helm

With just days to go before beginning the American Solar Challenge, a 10-day, 2,300-mile race from Chicago to Southern California along the historic Route 66, students from about 30 university teams put the finishing touches on their cars at Northwestern’s Ryan Field this week.

The teams, including NU’s own, gathered at the stadium July 7-9 to complete qualifying tests before the race begins July 13 at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Students have spent as long as two years working on the futuristic, solar-powered cars, which use energy from solar cells covering their surfaces to power small electric motors and can travel at speeds up to 80 mph.

Home-team advantage

About 10 students from NU’s 20-member team spent the first day of testing, July 7, in the lab working on their car, while other teams worked in makeshift shop settings scattered around Ryan Field.

“The advantage of being the home team is that you can stay in the shop,” said Jeff Owen, a McCormick senior and NU’s team leader.

All except two of the NU students involved in the solar car project are in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and most are male — although with four women, NU is closer to gender parity than most teams, Owen said.

Students don’t receive course credit for their work and often spend hours a day in the lab, especially in the weeks leading up to the race.

McCormick senior Drew Witte, who designed part of the car’s steering mechanism, said he had slept just three hours in the previous two nights.

Sleep deprivation seemed rampant among other teams as well, with students catching naps wherever they could — curled up on tarps, in folding chairs, on benches or simply leaning against the walls of the stadium.

No NU team members were sleeping July 8 as they prepared their car, called “nuSun,” for testing of its speed and braking systems. As the team took the vehicle outside to the makeshift track in the stadium’s west parking lot, students had yet another factor to worry about: rain.

Last-minute adjustments

It had been raining off and on all day, which, according to volunteers at the event, is nothing new for the American Solar Challenge. But water can damage sensitive electrical equipment, Witte said.

“It’s a beautiful day for solar car racing,” Witte joked, as driver Edward Chang, a McCormick junior, piloted the car into position for the test.

After finishing outside, team members used T-shirts to absorb water that had seeped in through the car’s unsecured lid and Witte drilled holes in the car’s underside to allow more water to drain out — just one of the last-minute changes teams made this week.

“You can never be ready,” said Milos Coric, a McCormick graduate student and manager of the manufacturing process lab where the solar car team has been working.

Other teams spent the hours between qualifying tests tweaking electrical systems, polishing cockpit coverings and taking care of other details.

University of Minnesota student Brian Hall studied a textbook while considering modifications to his team’s steering system. Unlike NU’s car, which uses a push-pull steering system with two separate handles, the University of Minnesota car, called “Borealis II,” uses a traditional steering column and wheel. Borealis II won first place overall at the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Topeka, Kan., a qualifying race for the American Solar Challenge.

Hall said he opted for a standard steering wheel because it would be lighter and have fewer parts that could malfunction, as well as because it would be easier for drivers to maneuver in a panic.

“It’s more intuitive,” Hall said. “Everyone knows how to drive a vehicle like this.”

All the glory — ‘and all the girls’

Solar car drivers must be relatively small, not only to fit in the cramped cockpits but to meet the race’s weight limit of 80 kilograms, about 176 pounds.

Drivers also must endure extreme temperatures during the race, said Western Michigan University co-captain Roger Anthony. While traveling through Death Valley during the 2001 race, the temperature inside the car hit 130 degrees, Anthony said.

With those hardships and a prominent position in the race itself, drivers get all the glory “and all the girls,” said Witte, while making adjustments to NU’s steering system.

“These drivers — they all like their stuff different ways,” he said. “They’re such prima donnas.”

Although only one person can drive each car at a time, in shifts of six hours or less, the rest of the team can get involved in the race while riding in support vehicles ahead of and behind the solar cars.

Today the teams will head to the MGA Research Center near Racine, Wis., for two days of qualifying races on a closed track before coming back to Chicago to display their cars and attend a banquet at the Museum of Science and Industry on July 12.

The race begins July 13 and ends July 23 in Claremont, Calif.