Run for the Rays

University’s solar car fueled by sun, but heart comes from students

By MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press; July 28, 2005©

Two police motorcycles blasting sirens roll into a parking lot in Sioux Falls, S.D., paving the way for a maroon van flashing its own warning lights. Dozens of adults and kids are cheering and waving little white pennants that read “North American Solar Challenge.”

They’re also expressing anticipation, curiosity and concern: Where, exactly, is the solar car?

The van turns a corner, unblocking the view, and there it is. All eyes tilt down and focus on what, at first glance, looks like a tanning bed on wheels. No sooner does it come to a stop than about two dozen college students, all in gold T-shirts, all strapped with wireless radio headsets, pour from two vans and descend on the car.

Some unhook bungee cords at the corners; others snap back hinges. The chaos is every bit as ordered as a NASCAR pit crew.

It’s July 20, exactly 1:41 p.m., and the University of Minnesota is the first team to arrive at this stage stop halfway through the 2005 North American Solar Challenge.

The 2005 race — or “rayce,” as these sun chasers term it — draws cars designed and built by teams of university students from all over the United States and Canada. Every two years, they compete against one another and also the weather, crossing the continent in cars fueled only by sunrays.

Twenty teams began July 17 at the starting line in Austin, Texas, with the finish line set 2,450 miles northwest, in Calgary, Alberta.

“1-2-3-UP!”

Four students — one at each corner — lift the shell onto their shoulders, revealing the innards of the car, along with driver Zach Kahly, who removes his helmet to reveal brown hair matted with sweat.

The shell is the car’s solar array, a molded sheet coated with hundreds of black, solar energy-grabbing panels the size of Nestle bars. A student carrying a silver water pump begins spraying it to better pull in the sun’s energy. Other students dive in, tending to the tires, the motor, the battery pack.

One Minnesota team member, John Wanner, calls this “an athletic event for the brain.”

For Minnesota, winning would stack up as the ultimate revenge of the nerds.

The school has finished runner-up in this contest three of the seven times it has competed, including the most recent running, in 2003. That history propels the 30 engineering, computer science and math students who had anything to do with building Minnesota’s latest car, named Borealis III.

Trevre Andrews estimates managing this project has eaten about 20 hours of his life every week for nearly two years, just a fraction of the 43,000 hours — all without pay or college credit — the Minnesota students collectively put into the car.

“That’s not just a number,” Andrews says. “We actually calculated it.”

Wanner, who ditched a career as a commercial airline pilot to return to college, is one of the team’s lead drivers. He shaved his head just before the race, leaving a patch in the back shaped like the team’s lightning boltish logo. Ellie Field is the team’s only female and, at 17, also its youngest member. The team entrusted her with designing the solar array that juices the batteries. Tom Whipple, another who left the workforce to return to school, is half of the racing “strategy team,” which teammates refer to as the Brains.

Patrick Starr, a professor in the university’s mechanical engineering department, has advised and overseen the university’s Solar Vehicle Project since arriving at the school 13 years ago. He bears the wisdom and grayed visage of an Obi-Wan Kenobi, though he’s more jovial and, beneath his floppy olive hat, certainly more casual.

Minnesota is the sentimental favorite here not so much for its previous bridesmaid finishes but because Minnesota seems the only team capable of beating the University of Michigan, a slick, well-moneyed machine other teams see as solar racing’s pampered equivalent of the New York Yankees. Heading into Wednesday’s final leg, the teams were within breathing distance of one another.

At the mere mention of Michigan, Mitch Hornwyffels of Minnesota shakes his head and says, “We just can’t let those guys win.”

Waiting to go

Two weeks ago, the only students seemingly left on the university’s St. Paul campus were tucked into a small, cluttered workshop in the Engineering and Fisheries Laboratory. They spent every day and night there, fine-tuning the electronics, computing code and wires, nuts and bolts built into Borealis III.

Three days before the team departs for the starting line in Texas, the car’s solar array sits atop a small metal frame. A plastic tarp draped over the top lends it the look of a space-aged coffin. Trevre Andrews convenes team leaders into a nearby classroom for the final meeting before leaving for Texas.

First item on the agenda are requests from other teams in the race for a spare motor. The discussion is brief and the answer even briefer: No. The mechanical and aerodynamics teams report the steering on Borealis III is “less twitchy” than it was the week before.

Andrews points his pen at Pat O’Connor, who is in charge of food.

“Have you decided the menu?” Andrews asks.

“We’ve got promises from some people to bring hot dish,” O’Connor says. “I asked the Omaha Alumni Association to bring ice cream sandwiches.”

The leadership committee nods its approval.

“And start calling your aunts, uncles, cousins, anyone who can let us have their generator for three weeks,” Andrews says. “Would be nice to have one if we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

Andrews has wavy brown hair and deep-set eyes beneath his glasses. He grew up in White Bear Lake, the middle of three boys who took part in the international competitive educational program called Odyssey of the Mind.

At the university, Andrews majored in geophysics and geology, but from the moment he and a high school buddy attended their first sessions for the solar racing team, in fall 2001, Andrews knew he would spend far more time in the project’s workshop than in any study hall.

“They told us this would take all our time and wreck our college careers. They were right. You lose all your friends — all your new friends are on the team,” Andrews recalls. “We were fresh out of high school, looking for adventure. We got to build a car, and that seemed pretty cool.”

Andrews came to the project, he figures, with as much knowledge about building cars as he did about building treehouses. But, as teammate Josh Malmquist put it, “every kid on this team probably took their toys apart rather than played with them.”

Newcomers benefited not only from the knowledge of veteran students but also from the mistakes and successes cataloged over the life of the university’s solar car project, first during the ’90s through a series of cars dubbed Aurora.

Students working on Borealis III designed and built virtually everything about the car, from the exacting specifications of the chassis and array to the size and shape of the steering wheel, winnowing and weeding out dozens of concepts through “small group arguments.” This attrition led to inevitable squabbles between the aerodynamics team, which likes curves, and the solar array development team, which likes flat surfaces. It also exacerbated existing rivalries between mechanical engineers and electrical engineers.

The grassroots, hands-on nature is the point, say team members, who turn to prefabricated items such as the car’s speedometer, built for bicycles, only when it’s deemed impractical for students to build themselves.

“You’re just waiting for electrical components to fall off the car or burst into flames,” Andrews says. “Anything can go wrong.”

Most teams at national races are happy to show off their cars to one another. The University of Michigan, according to the Minnesotans, surrounds its parked car with police tape. All teams tend to guard the efficiency test ratings of their solar arrays, for competitive purposes, and view with suspicion any rumored numbers coming from other schools.

“You hear things, but they might just be trying to intimidate us,” Pat O’Connor says of Michigan’s technology.

“We can’t even be sure what kind of efficiency we’re getting,” says Ellie Field, who designed Minnesota’s array.

Minnesota’s students are quick to contrast their no-outsourcing mantra with that of their rivals in Michigan, whose reported $1.8 million budget bought a satellite dish and state-of-the-art weather-trackers and allowed the team to farm out the production of most parts to Detroit automakers. The Minnesotans, who took to referring to Michigan’s team as GM, spent about $325,000 on the car and the race.

“You’ll see a lot less duct tape on our car than almost everybody’s,” Andrews says. “But you talk to Michigan, you don’t get the feeling they know their parts enough to have built them. They’re still a good group of guys.”

Wire and duct tape

From the moment Minnesota pulled into the parking lot in Sioux Falls, students have held the array on their shoulders, angling it for optimum exposure to the sun. Two others lay on their backs on the pavement, working on the wheels and chassis with wire and duct tape.

A new driver, John Wanner, has strapped himself into the car, where he’s more reclining than sitting. Students hoisting the array lower it over Wanner and bungee it into place.

“Let’s go. Let’s go,” Zach Kahly says as he jumps into one of the university’s support vans and slams the door.

The team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pulls into the park just as the Minnesota convoy leaves. The University of Michigan is nowhere in sight. Josh Malmquist, who works on Minnesota’s mechanical team, tips his head to the window and looks up.

“Hey, a cloud is coming in just as MIT rolls in,” he says. “Sweet!”

Clouds are a feared nemesis of any solar racing team. Without direct sunlight hitting the array and replenishing the battery, the car chews up power. On the road, a greater fear, and even more unpredictable, is the awareness of other drivers of a low-slung solar car that blends in with the blacktop.

To guard against collisions, teams post a “lead van” in front of the car and a “chase van” behind, both topped with flashing strips of yellow lights. The solar car never makes a turn without the chase van clearing the way, swinging wide around the car to block oncoming traffic.

In the back of Minnesota’s chase van are Tom Whipple and Martin Sturm — the Brains — each glued to open laptops. They’re collecting weather reports from another team van up ahead and monitoring everything going on in the solar car, from speed to battery consumption, and altering strategy to get the most from their power supply.

“John, lay off the throttle,” Whipple says in his headset to Wanner, who is driving the solar car.

“Hey, what’s the weather looking like?” Wanner says.

“It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” Whipple says.

“What do you mean don’t worry about it?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“John, you’re worrying for Tom?” Professor Starr says into his headset. “That’s a switch.”

Steven Faulhaber, a tall, tanned blond known as Battery Man, chides Whipple for asking someone in the van up ahead whether he sees “sun or hard-edged shadows.” A moment later, with the van moving about 45 miles per hour, Faulhaber rolls down his window and puts his hand in the air to check if there’s a headwind.

Ice chests in the chase van are stocked with simple sandwiches. Starburst and Jolly Rancher candies fill a silver dog dish up near the front seats. Carl Bienert, a burly youngster with long sideburns, has whittled an enormous jug of cheese-puff balls by the fistful down to the bottom quarter. He soon tires of the puffs and turns his attention to a package of Hydrox cookies.

The inside of one of the support vans ahead looks like a hardware store — chains, paint, glue, plastic crates overflowing with wrenches, nuts, bolts, wire and 75 spare tires. Flies became such a problem in the chase van that Whipple felt compelled to spray the interior with Cutter. Wanner asks if there’s a spare air freshener to hang in the solar car.

Along U.S. 75, the convoy passes a sign reading “Welcome to Minnesota” and someone over headset says he just saw a gopher cross the road.

“Oh, that’s goooood news,” Wanner says.

“I don’t see anyone in the rearview mirror,” says Mitch Hornwyffels, driving the chase van. “And it feels damn good.”

Photo finish

The North American Solar Challenge is a race unlike any other. Cars are allowed to drive no faster than the posted speed limits — a race judge riding in every chase van monitors the speed and marks time penalties for violations — and regardless of the posted limit, cars can’t exceed 65 miles per hour. This chagrins the Minnesotans, who had test-run their car past 75 miles per hour. The weight limit for drivers is 177 pounds.

“This is the lightest, fastest, most powerful car we’ve ever built,” Andrews says.

Outright speed in a solar race is often bad strategy. To determine how fast the car should drive at any given moment, Whipple and Sturm — the Brains — consider how much power the car’s solar array is taking in at any given moment, the power already stored in the batteries and the distance the car will have to travel before recharging.

Teams only race until about 6 p.m. each day, with a 45-minute window to find a hotel, parking lot or a farmer willing to let teams park and stow the car. Teams are prepared to camp in the middle of nowhere if they have to. The race judge with each team draws a line on the road, and the car starts from that point at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, plus or minus the time it took the night before to find a resting place.

During the stormy drive from Topeka, Kan., to Omaha, Neb., the Minnesotans could only run at 10 to 20 miles per hour, sometimes stopping every 50 feet and inching forward while waiting for the dark clouds to break. The lead Minnesota held through much of the United States slipped under an east-blowing headwind in Canada.

After reaching the final stage stop in Medicine Hat, Alberta, after more than 50 hours of racing and 2,300 miles of road, after judges’ penalties and team appeals, Minnesota trailed the University of Michigan by just 11 minutes. To make up the difference, Minnesota needed a break Wednesday morning somewhere over the final 188 miles to the finish line in Calgary.

The schools began a minute apart from one another, and Borealis III and Michigan’s car, Momentum, raced virtually bumper to bumper along Canada’s Highway 1. Behind the wheel of Borealis, John Wanner found himself side by side with Momentum. At one stoplight, he turned to stare down the Michigan driver.

“He won’t look at me,” Wanner said into his headset. “The guy knows I’m looking right at him.”

Chatter over the CB radios between the two teams, necessary to communicate when one intends to pass the other, was just as colorful. But with 10 minutes to make up, the Minnesotans couldn’t close the distance. People lining both sides of the road cheered Minnesota as it crossed the finish line at the University of Calgary, just minutes behind Michigan.

For the fourth time in this international contest, Minnesota has settled for runner-up honors.

Despite the finish, Wanner called Wednesday “one of the most fun times I’ve ever had driving the car.”

“We were going head to head with Ford, GM and Shell — I mean Michigan — and only lost to them by 10 minutes,” Wanner said. “You have to be so proud of what this team accomplished.”

Some members of the Minnesota team are talking about preparing the car for the World Solar Challenge in Australia, but Andrews doesn’t plan to be among them.

“I wish I could race cars for the rest of my life,” he said Wednesday. “But I have to find a job.”

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