The Principia College Solar Car Team began in 1991 as a non-credit engineering project for an advanced physics class. In 1995 the team finished its first car, Ra, made of steel and fiberglass and powered by a belt-driven motor. This car did not qualify for Sunrayce 95 and instead served as an exhibition vehicle. Principia returned with a new car, Ra II, for Sunrayce 97 and finished 31st of 40 teams. Then, in the rain-plagued Sunrayce 99, Ra III finished 26th. In both Sunrayce 97 and 99 the team received the Safety Award for best overall safety performance, and in 1999 the team was also recognized for outstanding teamwork and sportsmanship.
Two years later, RA IV outshone its predecessors by placing 1st both in the open class and overall at the 2001 Formula Sun Grand Prix in Michigan. This achievement afforded the team nationwide news coverage from both CNN and the National Geographic Channel and led the team into the 2001 American Solar Challenge, where Ra IV captured 7th place and the Sportsmanship Award. This final standing placed the team ahead of many large engineering schools such as MIT and Stanford. Ra IV also placed 4th in the 2002 Formula Sun Grand Prix in Kansas.
Due to the team’s outstanding performance in the American Solar Challenge combined with the receipt of an Engineering Excellence award from EDS, manufacturer of the Unigraphics computer-aided design software program, Principia was asked to serve as one of the two solar car teams to represent the United States in the China Solar Challenge and Road Show. Four students along with two faculty members traveled through China for three weeks during August 2002, demonstrating solar technology and sharing technical expertise.
Principia’s next solar car, Ra V, expanded on the legacy of Ra IV as the team raced to a 4th place finish in the 2003 American Solar Challenge and earned the Teamwork Award. After finishing the race in Los Angeles, Ra V was shipped across the Pacific Ocean to Australia where Principia competed for the first time in the World Solar Challenge and placed 6th. This 1,800-mile race across the Outback from Darwin to Adelaide was part of a ten-week Australian Science Abroad sponsored by the college. The next spring, the team was invited to represent the United States in Phaethon 2004. This solar car race was part of the Cultural Olympiad for the Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The team performed very well, earning 3rd place and bringing home that year’s first “Olympic” medal for the United States.
Ra 6 was a culmination of new ideas and past successes, resulting in a sleek and solid design; she was lighter and more technologically advanced than any of the team’s previous solar cars. This was accomplished by combining aircraft composite construction with satellite grade solar cells and solid lithium-polymer batteries – all based on an ultra-light aluminum space frame chassis. She proved her worth in the 2005 North American Solar Challenge, when she raced from Austin, Texas to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Although the car had no prior road experience, the team finished the 2.500-mile race in 7th place, ahead of some of the continents’ finest engineering schools. Ra 6 completed the race without a single breakdown on the side of the road or a single flat tire—a tribute to her mechanical and structural integrity. Principia was also commended for the team’s dedication to safety and teamwork within the competitive atmosphere. In addition, Principia-supporter Steve Warren recorded the team’s progress throughout the race and compiled Racing with the Sun, a video documentary of the team and its race experience.
In September 2006, Principia headed overseas to Taiwan to participate in the World Solar Rally. Ra 6 placed 5th in a track race and 7th in the road race portion of the rally. Team members enjoyed the pleasure of interacting with other race teams from all over the world, including teams from Taiwan, Japan, Germany, Iran, and Turkey.
Then came Ra 7, which was unlike any of our previous cars in both her design and construction. A change in race regulations forced team members to think creatively and overcome challenging design obstacles; these regulations included an upright seating position (27 degrees or higher) for the driver and a significantly reduced array area. To meet the new requirements, the team explored new fabrication techniques for the body and upgraded the electrical system.
NASC 2008, Ra 7’s first race, was a huge success! The Principia team came in second place, close on the heels of the University of Michigan. In addition to the Safety Award, Principia was honored with a Technical Excellence Award for having the most efficient solar array in the competition. The following year, Ra 7 raced in the World Solar Challenge in Australia in the fall of 2009. Continuing the legacy, Principia once again was presented the Safety Award and came in 7th place.
Once again, regulation changes – this time limiting the types of solar cells – pushed us to build a new car. This time we kept the same chassis, but built a new upper and lower body to accommodate new silicon cells, leaving our gallium arsenide cells behind. We called this car 7s, racing at the World Solar Challenge in 2011 and placing 28th. We came back to the U.S. to race in the American Solar Challenge in 2012 and were awarded the Safety Award as well as 3rd place. In 2013, 7s headed down to the Circuit of the Americas for the Formula Sun Grand Prix placing 4th and also taking home the award for Prettiest Car. We also decided to race Ra 7s one final time for the Formula Sun Grand Prix in 2015, placing 5th and receiving an unprecedented 7th safety award.
Our most recent car, Ra 9 is our team’s first four-wheel car. A regulation change that was made for the upcoming 2015 World Solar Challenge that we plan to attend. Ra 9’s first race was last summer, the 2014 American Solar Challenge where she placed 5th and won Best Electrical Design. In January 2015, we raced at the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge, placing 6th and winning the Quiet Achiever Award, given to the team that best embodies the spirit of ISF.