Racing 66:

The American Solar Challenge

July 15 - 25, 2001

From Chicago to L.A., Surfing Sunbeams in Solar Racing Cars on Route 66

Sound like fun? Take a lightweight rolling chassis; add storage batteries, and eight square meters of solar cells; put it all together with top-notch engineering, and you're ready to "rayce" - almost.

Solar-powered endurance racing started back in the '80s, with Hans Tholstrup's World Solar Challenge running across 1800 miles of outback Australia. Organized racing in the U.S. began in 1990 with the Sunrayces, which ran until 1999.

They say "racing improves the breed", but building a better solar car isn't exactly the point of the Solar Challenge. Rather, it's a means to other ends. The race gives teams of college students an opportunity to put their talent and knowledge up against the hard realities of racing, from fund-raising, to engineering, to the actual competition. Maybe most importantly, the race generates nation-wide publicity, making many more people aware of the potential power of clean energy. And - it's fun! Who could forget the joy of racing?

The race is run every other year, giving a team two years to design and build their car, often with help from veterans of the previous race.

The race cars are hand-made one-offs, each one unique within the rules of the game. The cost runs anywhere from the $40,000 Los Altos High School "Solar Shadow II", to the million-dollar "M-Pulse" from the University of Michigan. These are high-tech racing machines.

There are two broad design classes: Standard, with commercial-grade cells and lead-acid batteries, or Open, which allows a wider selection of components. Chassis design is either metal-tube space frame, or monocoque, where the body ties all the vehicle components together.

The cars are designed for maximum efficiency - it takes only a few horsepower to race them at highway speed - and most have the spare elegance, cultivated by the rigors of racing, that's seen in dedicated racers from Thoroughbreds to Indy cars.

The array of solar cells on the car's deck generates around 1200 Watts - less than 2 horsepower. Underway, additional power is drawn from the car's batteries, which are re-charged by the array. The car's electric motor becomes a generator during braking, sending current back to the batteries. The distance a car can travel on battery power alone depends much on road and driving conditions, but 140 miles is a good guess on average.

The race cars run entirely on the power of the sun - no other charging is allowed.

As solar technology has improved, the racing has become more demanding. When thirty qualified race cars lined up in front of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry on the morning of Sunday, July 15th, they faced the longest and toughest solar race ever - 2,247 miles from Chicago to L.A., following old U.S. Route 66.

Most of the entries were from colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada, but the field also included a team from Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights, California; the privateer "Association FUTURA" team from Pescara, Italy; and the U.K.'s South Bank University, racing "Mad Dog 3".

At 9:00 a.m. the race starter's green flag began waving cars off the line at one minute intervals. The light, silent single-seat race cars sped off over rough city streets, each car protected and monitored by its lead and chase vehicles. Running easily through light Sunday morning traffic, the cars were soon racing southwest across the flat countryside of rural Illinois.
M.I.T.'s entry - 440lbs., ready to race.

After starting 4th off the line, the University of Missouri-Rolla's "Solar Miner III" passed Stanford's "Third Degree Burner" on the way out of Chicago, then overtook Principia College's "Ra IV" and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology's "Solar Phantom VI". Solar Miner III led the race into the checkpoint at Springfield, 206 miles from Chicago, running an average speed of about 36 mph.

Racers call the 30-minute checkpoint stays "media stops". They're well aware of the race's PR mission, and go out of their way to answer questions and offer explanations to media people and the public. At the same time, though, these are also pit stops - the array deck is lifted off the car and propped up at 90 degrees to the sun for maximum charging , the car is thoroughly checked, driver changes are made. The team members step lively to cover all the bases.

Array deck from the University of Minnesota's "Borealis" is propped up
square to the morning sun and cooled with a spray of distilled water.

Meanwhile, the Kansas State University team swarms over their "CATalyst", checking and adjusting.
A long lever jacks the car up and a wheel is changed out. (Photos are from the Kingman checkpoint)
Solar Miner III sped out of Springfield, racing the next leg, 122 miles to St. Louis, in under three hours. It was the only car to make it that far by the end of the first day, making 328 miles from the start, and averaging over 38 mph. The racing day runs 10 hours, roughly from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and the rest of the teams came to rest along the road as their day ended. Queen's University's car spun out late in the afternoon and came to rest in a ditch, costing the team several hours on repairs.

Standing in the top three places at the end of Day 1: University of Missouri-Rolla; University of Waterloo's "Midnight Sun VI"; University of Michigan's "M-Pulse".

The next checkpoint after St. Louis was Solar Miner III's hometown of Rolla, and the first-place car arrived to a cheering crowd Monday morning. Several other teams wound up hauling their cars into Rolla, and taking time penalties for it, after a long stretch of rolling hills and hazy skies exhausted their batteries. Two teams, falling behind due to mechanical problems, had to quit the race.

Rolla was the end of the race's first stage, with the teams holding overnight for a flagged start the following day. They wouldn't all meet again until the end of the second stage, 1800 miles away in Barstow, California. The racing teams were on their own over this next stage, hustling rooms or camping out, dealing with rough roads and desert heat. The race eventually strung out so far along the road it took three days to run all the cars through the last checkpoint at Kingman.

On Tuesday morning the cars were flagged off in racing order. By the next checkpoint, at Neosho, Missouri, the University of Michigan's M-Pulse had gained 13 minutes on Solar Miner III, and the two got into a cross-country running duel for the lead.

Road hazards took their toll on the racing cars. While still in Missouri, the University of Virginia's "Solar Revolution 2" hit a pothole at 60 mph and broke their motor's suspension - parts borrowed from two other teams got them back on the road. Iowa State University broke their suspension on a rough stretch of Route 66 in Oklahoma, and had a new, stronger part machined in Amarillo. The University of North Dakota's "Subzero3" bought the farm at a cattle guard in New Mexico, wrecking the front end and putting them out of the race. Others had minor damage from vibration, and the cars' 120+ psi racing tires suffered numerous punctures and blow-outs.

The cars and drivers hit high heat in Oklahoma, racing in temperatures over 100F. Texas A&M's team found their batteries cooking up to140, and installed a pair of high-volume cooling fans from a nearby Radio Shack. Western Michigan University driver Kurt Hayden pulled 3.5 hours at the controls of "Sunseeker" with cockpit temps reportedly reaching 115.

With the deck unlatched and tipped up on hydraulic struts, Ra IV's driver climbs out of the rollcage.

Surfing sunbeams in a solar racing car takes some toughness and talent. As Solar Miner III driver Eric Pieper told Brittanie Hoofard of the Edmond (Oklahoma) Sun, "Inside it's not really comfortable, because we didn't build it for driver comfort. It's really bumpy. And really hot."

Andris Samsons drove for the University of Michigan in the '93 Sunrayce, and is now a development engineer with Bosch in Chicago. Anne Minard of the Arizona Daily Sun asked him about solar race car driving while he was working with the U.of M. team at the Flagstaff checkpoint. "It's hot. It's really noisy. It vibrates a lot. It's got knife-edge handling, very responsive. Any mental mistake and you'll end up off the road".

Jason Kramb drove this year's U. of M. car, M-Pulse, and told Will Matthews of the San Bernardino County Sun, "It's not even close to driving a regular car. You have to deal with wind gusts, with big trucks driving by you. It takes complete concentration to keep the car on the road. But if you've got that concentration, then you're golden".

Besides concentration and endurance, there's an art to driving - the art of conservation of energy and momentum. Making the most of the sun's energy takes finesse and discipline, and an economy of power somewhat foreign to our extravagant fuel-foolish habits - forget about "burn-outs"! The object is efficient cruising at a steady speed. Driving a solar racing car is a demanding task, and the drivers get a life-long kick out of their adventures at the controls.

By Friday, Day 6 of the race, the cars in the middle of the pack were racing across the Texas panhandle into New Mexico, while leading cars M-Pulse and Solar Miner III were already racing in the potent sunlight of Arizona. Right between the two leaders was - remember Queen's University, last mentioned in a ditch on Day 1? The team had pulled it together and got down to some serious racing, running in the top three from Oklahoma west. From Tucumcari to Barstow, M-Pulse hit the checkpoints first, followed by Queen's and Solar Miner III. The University of Waterloo's Midnight Sun VI ran a few hours behind them, arriving 4th, but posting faster elapsed times over the road than its position might suggest.

Skies were clear over the entire Western stage, except for an area of clouds and showers around northern New Mexico. Some had to trailer under the clouds and suffer the time penalties; others relied on their batteries to carry them through to sunny weather in Arizona.

Gambling on the batteries paid off for some, and it showed the importance of racing strategy. Somebody has to make decisions: whether to drive, or trailer; when to draw on the batteries, or stop to charge; when to run flat out. The team Strategist weighs all the pertinent factors - terrain, road conditions, elevation changes, race rules, weather and forecasts, battery charge and the power of the sun - and must consider all the possible and imponderable variables thereunder. In military circles this chaos of guesswork and information is called "the fog of war". Those untrained to deal with it can easily find themselves paralyzed by indecision. One team found themselves stuck in that predicament, until their faculty advisor finally exclaimed, "This is a solar car! The sun is out, let's race!" And, damn the torpedoes, away they went.

But the cloud cover cut some teams deep - trailering penalties of up to four and a half hours were assessed in New Mexico.

On Saturday morning, Race Day 7, M-Pulse was heading west from Flagstaff, Arizona, followed an hour behind by Queen's University, with Solar Miner III another hour back. They left the Interstate at Seligman, and raced on the old two-lane Route 66 across wide, rolling grasslands under the purple cliffs of the Colorado Plateau. The road climbed to a cool 4800 feet at Peach Springs, headquarters of the Hualapai Tribe, before curving southwest, away from the Plateau, on a long straight run down to Kingman.

M-Pulse hit the Kingman checkpoint at 11:36, Queen's at 12:34, Solar Miner III at 1:49, and Midnight Sun VI at 4:19. They stayed their thirty minutes, then got back on the road to keep racing on the powerful rays of the burning Arizona sun. They had a good chance to make the stage finish at Barstow before the day was done. Ahead of them was a blistering hot ride across the Mojave Desert.

In California the race route led them off the Interstate onto Route 66 again, from Goff's road, through Amboy, to Ludlow and back on I-40. Solar Miner III made part of the run Saturday afternoon in 110 heat, with the car's interior rising to120 - high enough to shut down its electrical system.

Old 66 is a little rough, and the desert heat makes it rougher, as the ground surface can heat up to over 180. Queen's went through eight tires on this stretch, making it into Barstow after 6. Their batteries died 300 yards from the finish line, and they were done for the day. Solar Miner III came to rest around Amboy on Old 66, after setting a team record of 380 miles for the day.

M-Pulse high-balled it across the desert, averaging 48 mph on the 228-mile run and finishing in Barstow before 5 p.m.

Most of the race teams hit the last checkpoint at Kingman on Sunday and Monday, Days 8 and 9 of the race. After 1,908 miles of open road cross-country racing, the cars still looked like new. Iowa State University's "prISUm Odyssey", running 18th, made a particularly classy entrance when it pulled in at 12:24 Monday for a pit stop and driver change.

prISUm Odyssey pulls in after racing 66 from Flagstaff, hitting speeds up to 65 mph and averaging 43. Once the car is in the hands of its crew, the recumbent driver comes up for air.

She gets a hand down, and helps the next driver get strapped in and wired for the run across the Mojave.
ISU won the teamwork award on the Rolla-Barstow stage. Driver's controls are on a handlebar
mounted under the crossbeam.

As the team caravans pulled out from Kingman, the officials' table was piled high with cartons of abandoned fruit - California doesn't allow "furrin" fruit to cross its state line. I wondered if the race cars would have to stop at a Border Patrol checkpoint, for the usual "Got any Mexicans in there?"

University of Minnesota's "Borealis" at speed, racing through Railroad Pass. (video frame -
to download the 484KB, 4-second fly-by Flash video, click here.)
The cars raced down 66 through Railroad Pass, then boarded I-40 at McConnico, heading south of the Black Mountains to by-pass the rugged stretch of Old 66 through Oatman - maybe a good thing, considering the steep grades over the mountains, and the beating the cars take on back roads. They had a tough challenge as it was, racing the Mojave.
They all knew what was ahead of them. KSU put a gray-tinted canopy on CATalyst to try and protect their drivers from the heat. Western Michigan University's "Sunseeker" started across the desert Monday morning from Needles, 150 miles from Barstow, and reported temperatures reaching 117. Like Solar Miner III, they also had to stop when their car overheated. They solved the problem by routing air into the car through a cooler full of dry ice, brought along "for just such desert emergencies".
The Mojave's poisonous heat and vast desolation can scarify the mind. The U.of Va.'s Solar Revolution 2 stopped to charge and camp Monday at Amboy, an isolated roadside outpost on 66 that died long ago when the Interstate bypassed it 10 miles to the north. Its vacant, flaking white buildings are silent, mummified, cadaverous relics of the old highway, out in the middle of nowhere - and they say the hills have eyes. Sure enough, the team got the desert willies, took down their array , and drove off rather than camp with the ghosts of Amboy.

As the teams completed the second stage of the race at Barstow, they kicked back to rest and re-charge, waiting for the start Wednesday morning of the final leg - a 110-mile race to the finish line at Claremont, on the northern edge of L.A.

The last dash was a sprint - from Barstow to Cajon Pass in the San Gabriel Mountains, then downhill on a long, twisting, high-speed run through Cajon Canyon, dropping 3,000 feet from the summit to the Los Angeles basin. The final miles had the teams steering their race caravans through traffic, until the support vehicles turned off and left the race cars to cross the finish line. Solar Miner III took the checkered flag first, followed by the University of Arizona's "Monsoon", Queen's, M-Pulse, and Midnight Sun VI, all within 5 minutes. ISU's prISUm Odyssey hit 71 mph on the way in, averaged 40, and finished the final leg 10th, 16 minutes behind the leader.

When the total elapsed times for the race were tallied up, the winner was The University of Michigan's M-Pulse, running the 2,247 miles in 56:10:46. Second was the University of Missouri's Solar Miner III, clocking 57:30:52. Third, almost an hour faster than Queen's, was the University of Waterloo's Midnight Sun VI, at 62:00:18. ( full final results for all teams, plus their hometowns and links to their websites).

M-Pulse and its team took home the Wilson Cup, the American Solar Challenge's traveling trophy, for the two years until the next race. All the teams took home a full measure of success for racing and finishing a truly challenging cross-country motoring competition.

Over on the Solar Raycing List, they're already talking about the next one, and the advantages of racing 66 again. Maybe, as the technology and designs continue to improve, the 2003 course will add the challenge of racing the corkscrew grades on the Haunted Highway through Oatman. We'll be on the lookout.

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Links for more on the race:

American Solar Challenge
Information on the cars, teams, and rules.

Formula Sun Solar Raycing
The ASC, Formula Sun Grand Prix, Solar Bike Raycing, and more.

Solar Raycing List
Message board for solar raycing aficionados.

World Solar Challenge
Australia, November 2001

Much of the information here was gathered from numerous sites around the World Wide Web. I especially thank the following teams for posting their accounts of the race:

Iowa State University

Kansas State University

Messiah College

Principia College

Queen's University

University of Michigan

University of Minnesota

University of Missouri - Rolla

University of Virginia

Western Michigan University


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