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Racing a solar car across America's heartland

On the road again: Dodging thunderstorms and stoplights all the way to Canada

Austin shimmered with heat that stretched over the night air. Under the large barn roof were 27 spots for 27 solar cars. At 3 a.m., sweaty, exhausted students lay passed out on the ground, oblivious to whirring power tools, while their teammates grimly continued construction and debugging. Unlike at Formula Sun Grand Prix (FSGP), we couldn't make a temporary solution, knowing we could fix it in the month before the real race. This was the real race.

Lifting the car's top shell for maintenance
Greg and Jason patiently lift the top shell to allow access for more tweaking. (Michael Seeman photos)

Although we had already qualified in Topeka at the FSGP, we had yet to pass scrutineering. Since stations are open from 7 a.m.-5 p.m., we could only work on the car at night. Most of us averaged 3-4 hours of sleep. Mentally and physically, we were pushing our limits. Even so, the first two days of inspections passed with only a few glitches. Wednesday at 9 a.m. we began the dreaded braking test. By 3:30 p.m., after numerous attempts, we still hadn't passed. The sun and heat were relentless. Suddenly, we stopped cruising on confidence and realized we might not be allowed to race. We started making crippling modifications — changing smooth tires for treaded ones (which would greatly increase our rolling resistance during the race) and removing booster panels, which constituted almost a third of our charging array power. Still nothing. We moved weight to the front, since the mechanical brakes are only on the front two wheels. John changed his code for talking to the motor controller to increase regenerative braking. One more try — the officials were getting impatient. Jonny drove the car around and accelerated to 31 mph. Downhill and on wet pavement, he slammed on the brakes. BAM — that was it. The timers confirmed our bittersweet success — we could race, but the car would be slow. With nothing to lose, we tried undoing the changes we had made, one by one. Each time the car was able to stop in time! We ended the day with the same car we had started with, but now it was cleared to rayce.

Greg with the final scrutineering checklist
Greg holds the final scrutineering checklist, filled with green (for go!) stickers.

That evening, CalSol alumnus Martin Koebler, who raced with the professional team Solar Motions, invited us for showers at his hotel. After camping for the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot, we headed to the track at College Station, about two hours north of Austin. Vivek and Reman had to complete seven laps and a slalom in the required time to qualify as drivers. Vivek was finishing his 4th lap when it started to sprinkle. Most teams, including us, headed back to their pits. The brooding thunderstorm crashed in at around 4:30 p.m. Rain whipped in on one side of the covered pits. Teams on the windy side dashed to create human walls with tarps to protect their equipment and vulnerable open cars, getting soaked as waterfalls formed on the roof edges. Teams scurried to unplug outlets and tape over electrical connections and battery boxes. Luckily, we had a gigantic roll of painter's plastic with which we covered the top shell, the open car, and our electrical tools. Lightning blazed, thunder rumbled. For the next hour or so, we huddled in the pits with other teams. Just when we were all wondering about dinner plans, the rain tapered off to a drizzle. The intercom, which had been warning people not to stand in large puddles, informed us that the tunnels to the track were flooded but were being pumped. Texas weather is so violently bipolar!

Saturday morning the team leads, freshly shaven, and our car got a televised spot on the local news, organized by our sponsor, Hybrid Technologies, Inc. After the excitement of seeing them on TV, we went on a test drive in rural Austin. We were supposed to be back in town at 4 p.m. for a team barbeque (free food!), but due to bad maps, we got stuck on a narrow lane with no shoulder that ended in a ford. Yes — it was a small stream flowing a few inches deep over a dip in the road. We finally got the car in the trailer and forded the stream in true Oregon Trail form — without the dying oxen. The barbeque was still on when we returned, and man, that Oreo ice cream was simply divine. Now, on to the race!

Day 1

Beam Machine at the starting line
At the starting line in Austin, the Beam Machine takes its place among the flags, balloons and solar cars. (Paul McMillan photo)
Twenty out of 27 teams survived qualifiers to participate in the first North American Solar Challenge, the longest solar car race in the world. After the ceremonial speeches and group photo, the University of Minnesota started the procession out of downtown Austin. Solar cars left a minute apart, the lineup determined by lap totals from both qualifiers. Sunlight was patchy, but the open class cars, like MIT, Waterloo, and Rolla (University of Missouri at Rolla, the defending champion), with their powerful and expensive gallium arsenide solar arrays, sped past our three-car convoy within the city limits. Out of the stock class, only Iowa State and Auburn were physically ahead of us, but because of the delayed start times, we couldn't tell who was ahead time-wise. Weatherford, TX, the next stage stop, was only 212 miles away, so we planned to arrive sometime in the afternoon. The race has 4 stages, with checkpoints scattered between. Winners are determined by their arrival times at each stage stop. Strategically, our battery pack should be thoroughly drained at the end of a stage.

"Target speed four zero, four zero," Greg radioed to the driver, while lead called back changing speed limits. Despite a sleepless night, my teammates and I stared intently at the car, wary of flat tires or careless drivers on the road, ready to leap out in our orange safety vests. During this first leg, we wasted precious minutes stopping to fix the car. Each stop took a minimum of five minutes to slow down and set out cones. Multiply that by four and that's 13 miles lost going at 40 mph.

We caught up with Auburn, only to be passed while we were pulled over, inspecting the car again. In a heavy shower, we passed Mizzou (University of Missouri at Columbia), who had pulled over due to the rain. We considered doing the same, when 100 feet farther, the storm ended! We arrived in Weatherford around 2:30, and I dashed for the bathroom. Since every minute counts, there are no bathroom breaks except at checkpoints. I resolved to drink less water the next day and nibble on salty pretzels. Before we could even set up the Sam (Solar Array Maximizer) in the large parking lot, raindrops began falling again, swift and heavy.

First priority: Get the car in the trailer. People dry off. Electrical components short out.

In the rush for cover, four teammates were locked in the trailer. All three sets of trailer keys happened to be with them. Duh. Henry reassured us that they could drop the keys through some fortuitous slits in the floor (we've actually lost parts through those slits when driving). The storm was brief, leaving powerful sunshine for charging. The slower cars were delayed even more by the downpour. Weatherford, a small town, was extremely hospitable, providing us lunch, dinner and breakfast! News on the other teams was as follows: Stanford came in roughly two hours after us, while Iowa State and Auburn were 17 and 13 minutes ahead of us. University of Michigan led the pack with Minnesota, MIT, Rolla and Waterloo close behind. SIUE (Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville) was disqualified for not arriving in time to Weatherford. Their car, a first attempt, weighed over 1200 lbs, almost three times as heavy as the lightest cars. MIT was penalized 39 minutes for speeding. They also managed to back their car into their chase vehicle, destroying some panels. Ouch. The worst case was Northwestern, who had to withdraw after a lithium fire destroyed their battery pack, which shorted in the wet weather. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Day 2
Now begins the longest leg of the race to Calgary. The next stage stop is Winnipeg, Manitoba. Endurance is key. The starting lineup reflects times from the last stage. Right before our 9:08 takeoff, our plastic accelerator pedal cracked. Pushed to the back, we frantically manufactured a new one and left 11 minutes later. Twenty miles out of Weatherford, the trailer crew called to ask where the keys were. The trailer crew's duty is to drive ahead, find a camping place, and set up the Sam so we can charge immediately after 6 PM. With the keys in the chase van, Paul and Jason were stranded at Weatherford. After calling race officials and one of the six safety cars that travel back and forth along the route to check on teams, we decided to drop Henry off on the side of the road to get picked up by Safety 6 and shuttled back to Weatherford. As we pulled away, I looked back at Henry sitting by a field with his orange safety vest on, looking very forlorn. Bye, Henry ...

It's 306 miles to the next checkpoint at Broken Arrow, OK — about a day's drive. Throughout the day, drivers kept radioing, "Car cut out, power cycling", causing frustrating delays. We didn't make it. Sara's mom, once a Tulsa resident, came to visit with some family friends who invited us to stay in one of their gigantic barns, since rain was feared. We found out later that we had slept on the largest cattle ranch in Oklahoma!

Day 3
We woke up extra early to return to the race route in time to charge. Each morning we receive our batteries from impound at 6:30, and each night they are impounded at 8:30 by the observer, who rides with us to ensure rules are followed. This means any battery problems must be solved before impound. The early morning was cushioned by the magnificent feast Sara's mom brought us — strawberries, cherries, muffins, donuts, juice, soymilk and four Thermos bottles of hot coffee! We soon arrived at the Broken Arrow checkpoint.

Repairing the solar car
Jeremy tapes the seam between the top and bottom shell after a driver change.

We have 30 minutes off the clock at each checkpoint, while officials switch observers, gather luggage and file logs. Our routine is this: jump out, chock the car, undo the latches. One, two, three, LIFT — top shell is off. Take turns going to the bathroom. Charge. Top shell goes back on in 4 minutes and counting. Start packing up, get back in the cars if you're not needed. Grab the chock, alright, go go go!

Since each driver can drive for a maximum of six hours and a race day lasts from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., it's great when a checkpoint coincides with a driver change; otherwise it counts on the clock. The observers must also witness the ballast change since each driver must be a minimum 170 lbs and all our drivers are underweight. We reached Topeka slightly before 6 p.m. and drove into a town inauspiciously named Kickapoo. Soon after dinner, the nausea I had felt the entire day became overwhelming. Two hours later, I threw up everything I'd eaten since afternoon. For the next 12 hours, I had nothing but Gatorade and popped some vitamins and Tylenol to combat the fever. I was pretty annoyed at the inconvenience and hoped to get better as quickly as possible.

Day 4: Travels with Tod
Today I decided to ride with Tod, the trailer, because the convoy can't stop during the 10-hour race day. Riding with Tod is a little hairy, since we can't see behind the trailer when passing other cars. Fields, fields and more fields! The monotony sung me to sleep until Omaha. The car checked in half an hour ahead of Iowa State and a few minutes after Auburn. Stanford was far ahead, out of sight. Around 3 p.m., I was jolted awake. Somehow Tod had turned down a narrow gravel lane with ditches on both sides. Tod alone is 27 feet long. Now add a V8 pickup truck to the front, and try to make a U-turn. It was a nightmarish Tod-trap. Henry and I jumped out to help Jason maneuver. For a heated half hour, it was "Back", "Slow down!", "Turn", and "Stop!!" After three attempts, we finally escaped. If that wasn't bad enough, we missed another turn and went a few miles off the route. Twenty minutes wasted, and we still had to get ahead of the solar car. Ten minutes after passing the convoy, we stopped in Manley, MN, population 16. Almost the whole town came out, since it had dwindled to six people, all of whom were very hospitable, let us use their electricity, bathroom, and air compressor, and bought us pizza for dinner! They own a tire shop, so we gave them one of our Ecopias – fairly strange tires for the Beam machine – signed by everyone on the team in silver Sharpie. Today alone, we've been in five states – Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota!

Day 5
Today didn't wake up (for me) until we arrived at the Fargo checkpoint to pick up Bill Stillwell as our observer until Winnipeg. As a veteran observer, he remembered the glory days of our last car, Solar Bear — how we trailered half the race, and subsisted on granola bars (or so the legend goes) — and he was only too eager to poke fun at us. As he climbed into the car, he asked, "So is the guy who sits here [next to Bill] skinny or fat? Does he smell?" We assured him that his seatmate Kevin was thin, and that we probably all smelled. Once on the road, he leaned over and asked Greg, "So where are we stopping tonight, boss?" We thought it might rain, so we were planning to stay at an inn. I'm glad Bill didn't have to rough it the CalSol way, although he was prepared to ("Where's my mac 'n' cheese?" he asked jokingly). The observers are all pleasant people — they ask about the car and us, and do their job. Somehow, Bill made you forget he was there to do a job; I think he was having more fun than we were.

Day 6
Our teammates at home called to say we are currently first place in stock class! Auburn is behind us. Stanford is still physically about an hour ahead of us, although an hour behind in time overall. From Winnipeg, it's about 800 miles to Calgary, and we figure that they won't be able to catch us in the last third of the race.

Solar car at border crossing
The Beam Machine waits its turn at the Canadian border.

At the border, we all poured out for a grateful bathroom break, since the border crossing was off the clock. Our names had been submitted earlier so the Canadians could check for us in their database of criminals. Unfortunately, Jonny Lee, our most experienced driver, was delayed for questioning. In 1998, a Jonathan Lee in Hercules, CA had stolen a car. Jonny managed to convince the Canadian officials that Jonathan Lee was a rather common name. After that, we scooted off to Winnipeg, down some truly awful roads.

"Bah-dunk-bah-dunk-bah-dunk-bah-dunk," replied Chase, our fifteen-passenger van, to the segmented highway. The vibrations were extremely painful for the solar car drivers, who were lying on their backs, feeling every jerk of the car at each bump on the highly pressurized tires and stiff suspension. Canadian roads, eh, they didn't seem too great. On the radio, Lead (AKA Mary the minivan) called out "Pothole right, pothole left, potholes everywhere!" We joked about making the target speed 100 – kilometers per hour, that is.

Around 12:30, we arrived at Red River College in Winnipeg, amidst a modest fanfare. The leading teams had come in the day before, but were still charging on the lawn with other teams. Since the arrays are tilted perpendicular to the sun's rays, they make wonderful sun umbrellas. After dinner, we headed back to our sketchy motel amidst traffic from a Canadian football game. The locals flooded the sidewalks, horns honked and either the victors or the losers were loudly and proudly showing their support.

Day 7

Greg with license plate
Greg shows off the team's new Manitoba vanity plate. (Paul McMillan photo)

It's Saturday, and for the first time, we slept in. People started waking up around 9:30 and shuffling through the bathroom (we had sixteen people in two rooms). The day lazily rolled along. On campus, all the teams received a Manitoba license plate printed with "NASC 2005". It's official — we are currently leading the stock class! The rest of the day, we showed off the car to the community, explaining how things work, guarding the car from overly inquisitive strangers, and fixing a few things. The University of Calgary organized a street hockey tournament between teams, with a duct tape Stanley Cup as the trophy. The top two teams ended up being North Dakota and Minnesota. Surprise? Later, two of the Principia girls, Heidi and Robin, came over to chat. I learned that Principia has only 550 students, one must be a Christian Scientist to enroll, and even though they have an amazing solar car team, they have no engineering department whatsoever! They've even been to the World Solar Challenge in Australia and Phaethon in Greece. Heidi, a budding ornithologist, is majoring in history.

Solar car teams compete in hockey
Minnesota and North Dakota solar car team members face off in the street hockey finals.

After the team meeting, Minnesota battled North Dakota in hockey and emerged victorious. The sun set deceptively late — around 9:30, almost bedtime. As we were packing up the car in the trailer, the mosquitoes swarmed in. Although everyone had insect repellent on, the mosquitoes continued pestering us, even biting through jeans and two layers of shirts! We yelped and hopped back to the van and motel, hoping the mosquitoes wouldn't follow us inside.

Day 8
Today's takeoff was similar to that in Austin. We parked the solar cars outside the Manitoba Capitol building, posed for photos, and lined up in order. We were one spot ahead of Stanford, but they were an hour behind. At Brandon (134 miles away), there was a huge swarm of townspeople at the checkpoint, which was either their community center, hockey rink, or both. The local Safeway gave us sack lunches, which held a chocolaty granola bar, apple, and box drink. Lunch? We chuckled at the loose definition, but the vegetarians were satisfied and CalSol always welcomes free food. We continued on to Regina, Saskatchewan, the next checkpoint 231 miles away. At 6 p.m. we were still 70 kilometers away, so we stopped in a clearing off of TransCanada Highway 1, devoid of bathrooms (except shrubbery). The Bandana Brigade (the solar car drivers) was nominated cooking crew. They met the challenge with savory pasta, mixing corn in the sauce. We topped off the simple fare with canned peaches. The charging was also phenomenal, due to our latitude and clear skies. We were getting 25% more current than normal! Unfortunately, we hadn't factored that into our strategy, and didn't drive fast enough today. We won't need all of the morning to fill the batteries. Stanford is supposedly 15-20 minutes ahead of us, whittling down our lead on them.

Day 9

Jeremy sleeps beside the car
After exhausting days on the road, team members learn to grab a nap wherever and whenever they can.
Morning greeted us with refreshingly chilled gusts of air. No more sweaty nights; we have traveled incredibly far north since Austin. We set off for Regina, hoping to reach Medicine Hat (288 miles away) by late afternoon. We wanted to catch Stanford and maintain our lead, but the weather soon turned sulky. Spoiled by sun since South Dakota, we set off too fast, unaware that thick clouds crowned the area near Medicine Hat. This afternoon, we were forced to slow down to 20 mph, shadowed by the darkest, largest cloud in the patchy sky. Lead eventually drove ahead to search for sun. Another painstaking 20 minutes later, we spied a patch of sun and crept toward it. Upon reaching it, we slowed down to remain in the sun. Ten minutes of blessed light until we hit another nasty cloud. Tod radioed us that Stanford had checked in at 3:35. We were 25 miles from Medicine Hat — at least an hour away at the speed we were going. The terrain became slightly hillier. We watched in silence, agonizing as the car crawled along. Finally, we reached Medicine Hat at 4:33. We charged our array and anxiously waited for official word on penalties and times.

Chilling on the grass, we teamed up with Waterloo to order pizza for dinner. Canadian pizza is insane — the large weighed 10 lbs! The pizza was a solid inch thick with Canadian bacon. Everyone seemed pleased with the choice.

We are practically tied with Stanford going into the last stage. We've heard that Stanford's chase vehicle accidentally hit their car, ruining 10% of their array, but they could always replace the cells. This race is incredibly close!

Medicine Hat College, a beautiful facility, has offered the teams dorm apartments for $122/night. We've taken the offer and are stunned by the brand-new place. It has four single rooms, a living room, kitchen, two baths, and even a laundry room!

Day 10
This day was a lot like our extra day in Winnipeg. A surprising proportion of Medicine Hat's small population came out to see all the cars charging on the lawn. The officials have decided that Stanford is 12 minutes ahead and that we have incurred 16 minutes of penalties for running red lights. We had until 9 p.m. to protest, which we did, but unsuccessfully. We had had some problems with short yellows and the solar car not being able to stop in time, so it continued through the intersection, followed by the chase vehicle. Our first two penalties were 3 minutes each, but the third one was counted as a second offense and given 10 minutes. Michigan's 40 minutes of penalties have put them half an hour behind Minnesota. The top two teams in both classes are extremely close. MIT, comfortably in third place, had more than two hours of penalties, of which they successfully protested 60 minutes.

The last stage is intentionally short so the slower teams can come in soon after the top teams for a more exciting finish. In other words, there isn't much distance to make up time. We sent a scout group ahead this afternoon to log GPS data, discovering that the terrain is full of rolling hills, with an overall elevation gain. Weather forecasts predict scattered clouds all the way to Calgary. We need a perfect strategy to have a chance. Comparing our car and Stanford's, we might have the lighter vehicle, but theirs is more aerodynamic. Mike, our sole grad student from MIT and a solar car veteran, is staying up to work out energy usage for tomorrow, taking into account topography and previous telemetry data on the car's power losses at different speeds.

Day 11

CalSol passes Stanford
Viewed from the chase car, CalSol's Beam Machine (left) passes Stanford's Solstice on the race's final day. Alas, the lead was not destined to last.
The last day; 186 miles to go. We agreed not to pace Stanford or anyone else, but to run as well as we could. The weather was expected to be fairly sunny the entire way. We took off. Stanford drove ahead out of sight. We soon passed Iowa State and Calgary. We began approaching the Stanford convoy, first overhearing them on the CB radio. Finally, around 11:15, a little too late to gain back 12 minutes, we passed Stanford, whose target speed was 45 mph. Ours was 48. After some consulting, we crept up to 50 mph. The last seven miles were in the city, so we banked on charging at stoplights to get us through, running our batteries down at the city limits. We sped up to 52 mph, but soon hit an isolated stoplight. Somebody honked at us from behind — the Stanford convoy. We thought we had left them long ago. They trailed us to the edge of the city. It was impossible to get a lead on them with all the stoplights. We kept wishing for reds for Stanford, but no luck.

CalSol car at the finish line
Nearly 2,500 miles after leaving Texas, the Beam Machine crosses the finish line in Calgary. (Audrey Yong photo)
The city was full of miniature hills, and suddenly, our car started cutting out when accelerating uphill. We had finally broken away from Stanford due to a quick light change on them, when our car cut out and they passed us. We kept having problems. We were so close! A few miles from the finish, the car stopped on an incline in the left lane and wouldn't start. We jumped out and took off the top shell while Mike looked inside the electrical box and discovered a loose connection. Calgary's streets were lined with cheering people and honking cars, watching our stalled vehicle. Fortunately, Mike had a spare board, which he swapped in. We proceeded calmly to the finish line, knowing there was no way of getting first, but also almost no chance of losing second (Iowa State had three hours to gain on us). When we got to the finish line, we jumped out of the van, running alongside the car as it crossed the line. We'd made it — almost 2500 miles! After the excitement, we rolled the car to the Olympic ice rink to sit regally on display with the other cars. At night, we joined other solar car teams at the campus bar, rented out by the Calgary team. We snuck out at one point to see Paul McMillan's grand fire-breathing demo, which was quickly shut down by security. We headed back at midnight, having only the awards ceremony and banquet to attend the next day.

Day 12
The awards ceremony/banquet was at 11:30 on the University of Calgary campus. In typical NASC fashion, the banquet wasn't formal at all, but more like a barbeque/picnic. The food was tasty and welcome, as was the company. Today was the big T-shirt trading day. Since the whole race ordeal is three weeks long, and members must sport their team shirts all the time, each person has at least 4 or 5 shirts. At the end, we all trade with different teams. CalSol shirts were in high demand due to their snazzy design by Navtej. Other favorites were from the University of Calgary "UC Solar" and Kansas State "Killing GPAs since 1995". Luckily, I had reserved shirts from the girls from MIT, UC, and Principia. Being a girl, it's hard to find someone who's the right size. The observers and race officials also had T-shirts, hats and jackets to trade. John got the best deal – he traded his CalSol shirt for a Columbia-brand jacket with an embroidered "North American Solar Challenge" logo on it.

CalSol team members with trophy
Trophy in hand, the CalSol crew gathers for a team photo at the conclusion of the race. (Audrey Yong photo)

The awards ceremony began. First, there were awards for things like esprit de corps, artistic design, sportsmanship, teamwork, innovation, and best rookie team. I was surprised they didn't have an award for most improved team, because I think CalSol would have won it. Although we placed second in stock class two years ago, Solar Bear was a much slower car than the Beam Machine. The race crew doubled in size, as did our sponsorship. Now people aren't worrying about not being able to pay rent for the next month, or massive credit card debt due to solar car expenses. We've been able to take showers more often and eat more than just granola bars (although they will always be a staple). CalSol did win an award for most powerful array in stock class. The University of Calgary indisputably won best rookie and esprit de corps, while Minnesota won innovation for effectively encapsulating their own cells. This is really tricky to do correctly – almost all teams outsource the job if they have the money. A few teams attempted to do their own, but it almost always ends up messy or wrinkled, which hurts the array power. Looking at the winners, it's hard not to say it's just a matter of who has more money. Michigan reportedly has more than a million dollars invested in their project; they have a satellite dish atop their strategy vehicle for constant internet access, they had several vehicles donated by GM, they have a semi solely for solar car transportation, they apparently outsource most of their designs, and they have access to wind tunnels. The University of Calgary had $300,000, and even if that's in Canadian dollars, it's more than twice as much as what CalSol had. In addition, other teams have advisors who help in the design process, and serve to pass on experience and knowledge for future cars. Imparting what we've learned on the race to the next team will be key for building a legacy for CalSol as a competitive solar car team.