American Solar Challenge 2022, here we come! Follow the team along the race route on our social media channels and right here for updates and observations from Principia College President John Williams.
We made it to Las Vegas! We know what they say about Las Vegas, New Mexico—“Really? Where is it?”
It’s south of the border—the Colorado-New Mexico border, with real Mexican meals, not Taco Bell. Tired of hamburgers and Henrietta’s grilled ch**ken sandwiches, we searched out the locally owned Mexican restaurants—like Casa Lemus in Raton and Pino’s in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas is east of Santa Fe, somewhere north of I-40 and too far from Texas to toss an armadillo. We didn’t see any armadillos, but did we passed a deer waiting to cross the main street in Cimarron.
For our journey south from Raton to Las Vegas, we tried to avoid Interstate 25 when possible. After a two-mile stretch of the freeway outside of Raton (speed limit 70 mph—not good for solar cars traveling 35 or 40 mph), the race route took us across the rolling plains and into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The task of the Prez Prius today was to hopscotch ahead of the RA XI team and capture drone video. We found a well-suited rise on a two-lane highway and launched the drone. Yes, it does sound like a cloud of angry bees.
We debated what to call a group of angry bees—colony? Not rebellious enough. Hive? Too sweet sounding. Swarm? Already taken by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard navy. Our avoidance of a Wikipedia search was interrupted by the distant of “puph” or, in English, “poof,” only with a baritone sound. I thought it sounded like artillery, only it was happening much too fast and too many times and was very random. Who orders “fire for effect” in the vastness of New Mexico? The U.S. 1880 Cavalry was one suggestion.
Standing quietly on a rise at edge of the vastness of the Great Plains leads to all sorts of contemplation. The unexpected approach of the lead van, RA XI, and the chase van brought us back to our current task. The drone was in the air, and we filmed some fun video. Afterwards, hunched in the limited shadow of our Toyota Prius (it is a low car, so there wasn’t much shade), we critiqued the video.
We quickly packed the equipment and raced to catch up. The roads, two-lanes with limited shoulders, are straight with clear sightlines for miles. The benefit of emptiness is worry-free passing. In reverse order—race official observation car, Principia chase, RA XI, Principia lead, App chase, Runnin’ on Shine, App lead.
Miles ahead we spotted Appalachian State’s (“AppS”) version of the Pres Prius, a new model Ford passenger van sans president and drone. Their team’s photographers were standing on an unused railroad crossing. They had placed themselves to catch Runnin’ on Shine as it traversed the railroad crossing. We all watched as a local pickup truck went through that crossing (not much below 60 mph). It “caught air.” The vehicle’s forward momentum meant that all the pieces continued together for the foreseeable future.
If Runnin’ on Shine and RA XI weren’t careful, many pieces would “catch air.” We all stood respectfully back as we photographed our respective teams. The drone footage was better than earlier. Given flight limitations (generally 400 feet), the Principia drone maxed at 100 meters. We didn’t have to guess, as the iPhone connected to the controls provides altitude readouts along with lots of navigation information, including maps of prohibited flying zones. One hundred meters is about 325 feet for those who calculate, or engineers who just know this stuff.
We were disappointed that we weren’t low enough to film the underside of either solar car. The footage from above, though, was great. If you freeze frame and zoom in, you’ll see everyone hunching tight, in expectation as Principia’s veteran lead van driver, the unflappable Steve Shedd, took the tracks. He took some air but didn’t seem to notice. You can’t tell from 325 feet above. With a right soundtrack, the video fit IMAX.
So, back into the Prez Prius to dash ahead. We passed Principia’s convoy, but Runnin’ on Shine was nowhere to be seen. It was faster than a revenue agent seizing an illegal still . . . that kind of shine.
We pulled into Cimarron for a quick stop. I was sitting on the curb when lead-solar car-chase whizzed by. I think Principia was filling the battery with “shine.” It took us more than 30 miles of country roads to catch up to RA XI. Perhaps it was because we dallied through Philmont, the famed Boy Scout ranch spread over 140,000 acres of wilderness. My older brothers attended Philmont in the late 1950s and returned home with imagination-filling stories of living the adventures of Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, or John Fremont. Now, I can write older brother Dennis and say that I, too, have been to Philmont. Or, through it.
Most of our drive was along the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Just the name evokes mystery and wonder, and it slowed our speed—not the name, but the mountains.
We also learned the source of the bangs, booms, or poofs—Whittington Center, the National Rifle Association’s version of a summer camp. We figured the deer felt safer with traffic in downtown Cimarron.
We caught up with RA XI as the convoy crossed into the plains. The next adventure would be a 15-mile detour to the monument at Fort Union, a U.S. cavalry outpost. We passed the convoy and dashed ahead (via the Interstate at speed limits of 75 mph). We found a rise on the blacktop to Fort Union with vistas in both directions. You can see forever—the Sangre de Cristos to the northwest; rolling hills to north and south; flatter plains to the east. Principia senior Mark Trinidad, the drone operator, practiced his techniques, including operating from a moving vehicle. He drove the drone; I drove the Prius.
We waved to friends in other convoys—AppS and Illini. When someone arrives at a checking station, particularly after an arduous stretch, the other teams rush over to share their adventures. There are always waves and smiles.
Below us, perhaps ten miles distant, was an isolated grove to trees where Fort Union stood. Now only a small fraction of its original 44,000 acres, the fort’s “location seemed ideal for conveying a clear presence of the power of the United States government.” As we read the explanatory board at the pull-off, we heard the rumble of a jet aircraft above, and not that far above. It wasn’t the sound of a plane flying at 35,000 heading to Dallas. It was a B-52.
How do I know? Two years living on a B-52 base as a kid! During the Cold War, the massive planes operated 24/7. It was never a quiet moment as they lifted off or returned from strategic patrols. The plane is big, with long wings, and four sets of engines. More importantly, it barely has a fuselage. The B-52 has a very narrow middle, like a corset had been left on too long. It doesn’t need much space for its load of bombs. Instead, it needs power to lift and transport the weapons around the world. The plane made a slow curve, coming from the Sangre de Cristo and banked gracefully to the northeast. Like the drone, you hear the bomber after you loose sight of it. It is “ideal for conveying a clear presence of the power of the United States government.”
Our jumble of thought was focused by the appearance of the RA XI and escorts in the distance. The drone was launched and positioned. Mark was honing his craft, with leading shots, following shots, pulling back, and moving in. We repeated the exercise as the team returned to pass us, heading back to the freeway.
We had lots of rich thought time: reflections on nature, beauty, history, power and persuasion, treatment of native peoples, new friendships. Perhaps the theme for this day was not the solar car directly but the unexpected opportunities that result from this opportunity. The night before, Missy had wandered around the compound of our lodgings. It was an old 1950s motor lodge, ala Howard Johnson’s. The rooms were simple and very large. The evening air was cool and clear, and guests were sitting on benches in front of their rooms.
Missy loves animals (don’t tell our cats, but her love extends to dogs). Several doors down the portico was a miniature English Bulldog. Missy wandered over to talk to the owners. She was bored with my conversation partner, a retired Navy captain of 35 years, who is our assigned official race observer. He takes his duties seriously and keeps his conversations with the team on a formal level. But, with me—we were swapping “war stories.” Jim is an aerospace engineer and a world traveler. He is one of those happy conversationalists with whom it is a pleasure to stand next to and watch the sunrise.
That’s what we did this morning. We stood in the morning chill and talked about taking the time to observe the unnoticed world around us. At 6 a.m., a pickup truck slowly rolled next to us . . . it was the Principia truck heading back up the Raton Pass to retrieve the trailer and solar car packed inside.
Shortly afterwards, Missy and I had breakfast. She introduced me to the couple who owned the English Bulldog. In their short conversation that night before, the wives had discovered that each was quarter-Cherokee. That is sufficient to be registered with the tribal council. The women exchanged business cards and promised to help each other continue to explore their roots and heritage.
As we left the staging stop in Las Vegas, we spotted two Principians sitting on the ground among several MIT students. Their attention was focused on the right front wheel of the MIT car. It is more than a car or a race.
American Solar Challenge was on fire today!
That’s not an idiom! It’s a reality. Crossing eastern Colorado is hot (or as Missy says with understatement, “toasty”). The slogan for the MIT car is, “Born in Fire” (a reference to having to cast part of the vehicle). The Minnesota car (the Humvee stepped on by an elephant—see earlier blog) had a battery fire climbing the Raton Pass.
Only two of the single occupant cars made the Raton Pass under their own power—all 8,000 feet. Oops, I’m exaggerating—it’s only 7,835 feet. Missy and I were at the New Mexico State Police weight station at the top of the pass. Missy was chatting with the state troopers, and I was watching the efficiency of the MIT team.
Two small scout cars arrived and set up safety cones, claiming slots normally occupied by massive tractor trailer rigs. Not long after, the MIT truck and trailer arrived. The team opened the trailer to receive the car. Within moments, two small cars—lead and chase—escorted “Born in Fire” to the trailer. With military efficiency, the students prepped the car, stored it in the trailer, and buttoned up the rig. The vehicles started to move as the last students dove into their assigned seats. At one point, someone asked for a tool and three wrenches appeared.
Over the next hour, more scout cars and truck trailers arrived, but no solar cars. The Principia truck and trailer arrived with the news. Raton Pass had become the graveyard of solar cars. Missy spotted panic among the Minnesota team as they dashed for their truck and trailer rig. Somewhere below us, a battery was burning. No one was harmed.
RA XI was creeping up the mountain—on the shoulder of Interstate 25 at a pace of a slow walk. The battery was nearly drained; they were using energy directly from the sun. The deadline was approaching. At 6 p.m., every car is required to stop where it is. The spot is marked, and the race resumes at 9 a.m. the following morning—crawling up that darn hill.
With minutes to spare and slowly creeping around the mountain bend were two cars—RA XI and Appalachia State. App State is the other multi-passenger car. One of their drivers declared proudly, “we were born in the mountains,” though their slogan is “Runnin’ on Shine.” Principia crossed “the finish line” for the day at 5:59 p.m., and App State crossed at 6 p.m. Not a second to spare.
Missy paved the way with the state troopers who let RA XI “set up the array” at the weight station. The top of the car, covered with solar cells, was tilted to face the setting sun—two full hours to try and replenish the depleted battery. It’s certainly better than a fried battery.
After sunset, the team rolled down the slope into Raton. Friday morning will start at 7 a.m. back at the weight station. RA XI will be rotated 180 degrees to catch the rising sun. We’ll have two hours before racing resumes at 9 a.m. Somewhere, deeper into New Mexico, rides MIT.
Thursday began before sunrise as the team “trailered” RA XI back across the Kansas-Colorado line to where our Wednesday racing ended in the oncoming storm. The midday stop was outside of La Junta, Colorado, at a National Park Service site called Bent’s Old Fort. The structure was a traders’ fort rather than a military fort in the years before and around the Civil War. It sits at the junction of several trade routes, including the Santa Fe Trail and the Arkansas River (the river is a long way from Arkansas). Mr. Bent was a merchant who built and managed the fort. Toward the end of his career, rather than sell the fort at a discount to the military, he burned it down. Can you detect a theme of the day?
I’m not sure how someone burns a two-story mud fort, but Bent was alleged to have committed the deed. Later, he built a new fort . . . hence the illuminating need for Bent’s Old Fort and Bent’s New Fort. The former is like a living museum, complete with livestock. I was escorted around the compound by an insistent hen. On the railing above us was a peacock. I’m still wrapping my head around a peacock in an antebellum mud fort on the banks of the Arkansas River in Colorado hosting a solar car race.
The National Park Service is one of the race sponsors. The American Solar Challenge follows the route of the National Park Service’s Santa Fe Trail network. A team of rangers has been following the race and setting up mobile information booths at each stop. Several hundred spectators came out to study the cars, interrogate the students, listen to mini lessons from rangers, tour Bent’s Old Fort, and interact with Henrietta the chicken.
As per practice, the Principia truck and trailer and the Prez Prius were waiting at the Park Service site for RA XI and escorts. Chatter on the group text had turned concerning. It wasn’t Henrietta but a front brake on the lead van. Someone was assigned to take the van and find a repair shop. The now-absent lead van was replaced by the scout van which would be replaced by . . . the Prez Prius? It made sense to everyone but me. The car was already registered as a race-team vehicle. It had all the official insignia, plus Principia markings. The driver was a registered member of the team.
The scout van was emptied of its cargo. Namely all of the luggage, sleeping bags, food stuff, folding chairs, bottled water, extra peanut butter, 3D printer, ice chests, dirty laundry—in short, everything found in a men’s dorm room. Items were quickly shuffled into the solar car trailer and then into the worrisome lead van—equipment, tools, spare parts, PB&J sandwiches—before being shifted to the scout van.
This is where I decided to take my walk with Henrietta. She scurried between my legs, followed me through the replica workshops of Bent’s Old Fort, led me to a couple of photo ops, and tried to peck at Missy’s legs. Henrietta’s advice was to take a moment and drive into La Junta. We needed to get gas for the car, and she suggested taking Missy to lunch at Carl’s Jr. The little local lunch spot provided an unusual vista—one of the largest railroad switching yards in the Midwest. I contemplated Henrietta’s advice over a grilled ch***ken sandwich.
By the time we returned (let me make clear that Henrietta stayed at the fort and is still pecking visitors’ legs), the faulty brake had been repaired and the lead van was returning. It was nearly time to resume racing. We took everything out of the scout van, put it back in the lead van, and emptied out the solar car trailer, stuffing the belongings into the scout van. This meant there would be room in the Prez Prius for the First Lady.
That’s a good thing, because she spots the unusual aspects of life—the three zebras near Las Animas, a fish hatchery and rearing station (“rearing station”?), a couple of sod structures, asking about the Sand Creek massacre (we passed the site; you need to look it up). She’ll strike up a conversation with anyone, compliment a woman in Council Grove on her very short haircut; tell state troopers in Hobbs, New Mexico, about the tumbleweed down main street (they laughed at the image); discover others with Native American heritage; thank park rangers for their service as educators; ask MIT students where they live in Cambridge; listen to the life stories of bystanders at each stop; and compliment the manners of the Principia students to everyone she meets.
Two o’clock countdown. The mighty monster from Minnesota dashed (it can move quickly) onto the two-lane blacktop, its convoy turning westward. Following was the other multiple- person car “Runnin’ on Shine.” As a college president, I’m trying to figure out the optics of the slogan, and I admit that AppS’ slogan is catchier “Powered by the sun, fueled by the mind.” Only a college president would love the latter.
I’m amazed at how App State has gotten the entire world to put its university name on smart phones and tablets. Who was the marketing genius? Now, everybody knows “AppS.” They pulled on to the blacktop and promptly stopped. Bad batch of shine? Illini, MIT, and RA XI needed to navigate around the traffic situation. Illini (which folks insist on pronouncing “ill-ee-knee”; at least they use the silent “k”) was the first traditional car to arrive at the stop and so was the leader of the single-occupant cars.
True to the slogan, the first shall be last and the last shall be first, App State beat Minnesota to the New Mexico state line. And MIT and Principia beat University of Illinois. We travelled from state to state to state and moved luggage from van to van to van (and back again). I have little doubt that the kids from Cambridge are closing in on Las Vegas, New Mexico. Like I said, everyone was on fire today!
“Step on the gas! It’s the cops!”
But there’s no gas in a solar car. So, “Step on the battery!”
That doesn’t have the same ring. Especially, if the cops are insistent.
Within a matter of miles, RA XI was “introduced” to local law enforcement twice. A note of context is important. It’s a rare sight in southwestern Kansas to see strange vehicles, bracketed by cars or vans plastered with stickers and carrying flashing lights. Cars will pull alongside, pacing the convoy, taking pictures until an oversized gloved hand waves the sightseers away from the vehicles—bright green gloves for the lead driver and shotgun, bright orange ones for the chase car driver. At construction sites and roadblocks, workers will often pull out their cellphones and take pictures.
Since the U.S. Defense Department has admitted the existence of UFOs, it’s now okay to admit that they look like solar cars.
Twice, on either side of a county line, local county police or sheriff’s deputies pulled over the RA XI caravan. License, registration, proof of insurance?
“What’s the problem, officer?” We’re not speeding. A two lane black top in southwestern Kansas has posted speed limits of 65 and 70 mph, and these farmers are not slow. So, it might be the opposite problem, with “target speeds” in the high 30s or 40s. Teams can get deductions if they hold up traffic and that’s more painful than a ticket for “not speeding.”
The officers were a mixture of curious, concerned, and conversational. Be careful, though, of explaining that you are part of “a race,” unless you want to warn the officers that there are more solar cars coming. Wait until you see that car from Minnesota!
The morning started off with less drama, though. Although Principia was first to arrive in McPherson the day before, RA XI was a tenth of a mile behind the leader, MIT (this is an endurance race, not a timed race). So on Wednesday morning, MIT took off first. I had the pleasure of introducing myself to the MIT team and assured them that Principia “had their back.”
Somehow, that didn’t sound as reassuring. It’s like the warning on your rearview mirror— “Objects are closer than they appear,”—when they are only a tenth of a mile behind.
It was less than 25 minutes to start and panic strikes. Earlier, a faulty valve stem threatened to sideline the chase van. The alternative was the “Prez Prius.” While I wanted to wave a bright orange glove at people, I’m not aggressive enough to drive chase. The chase car must bully away threats to the solar car. Fortunately, the valve was quickly replaced.
Then, disaster of another sort struck. Through no fault of the team member, a change of clothes was needed; clothing was soaked. Shorts and underwear needed replacement. If it’s Home Depot or an auto parts store you need, call Steve Shedd. But who do you call for “fresh underwear?”
In minutes, I’m standing in Walmart as my wife asks the important question—boxers or briefs? “What? This is a race! Does it really matter?” (Of course, it does.)
Thank goodness for texting. We double checked the waist size. Nylon or cotton? How about the style? Which color . . . STOP! “This is a race!” Once RA XI is flagged onto the highway, the best we can do is drive along side and toss underwear at the convoy. A big orange glove would be useful but that would get police attention.
MIT is called to the starting line for countdown, and the Principia convoy is readied. The lead van and chase van are pulled into position, ready to cocoon RA XI. The least significant RA XI team support vehicle—yes, the Prez Prius is an official team vehicle, covered with solar stickers and Principia promotions—whips into the starting pits, avoiding MIT and inattentive spectators. With the bag of vital materials in hand, the First Lady dashes to the vans and tosses the bag into the . . . wait, which van needs the underwear—lead or chase?
RA XI is waved into position. The countdown occurs, and the convoy launches into traffic. In a few moments, a grateful text comes through. Mission accomplished. We got the right van.
The teams drive on one route and support vehicles are usually are assigned a different, somewhat parallel route. As a result, we can leave after the convoy yet beat the team to the next stop. So, on Wednesday, the Prez Prius and the truck and trailer hopscotched back and forth on the alternate route. We drove through Hutchinson and arrived in Dodge City, Kansas (right behind the Boot Hill Museum) ahead of everyone but the race organizers.
We had enough time for lunch and wandered to the arrival area. The first car had already arrived. It’s a special competition car (only two in the class) for multiple occupants. These cars have different rules, including access to plug-in recharging. The lead car from University of Minnesota Twin Cities looks like an elephant had stepped on a Humvee. It’s big, broad, squatty, and solid and can hold four people.
As we’re admiring the closest thing to a solar car monster, in rolls RA XI. We were so unprepared that the President was called upon to “stand on the tarp” and hope the brakes work. The support vehicle drivers prepare the parking spot with plastic tarp; an extra body was needed to hold it down against the Great Plains winds. Once the car is in place, the team can crawl under the car for inspections or repairs and catch any loose parts—nuts, bolts, carburetor (that’s expendable on a solar car), pink string, etc.
Pink string? That was the topic of chatter on the group text for the next hour or so. Maybe that’s what interested the cops. The string needed to be investigated and removed.
The stop was for a mandatory 45 minutes, and Principia’s team was eager to get back on the road. If you make good time, you can accrue additional laps at a subsequent stop. Remember, it is a primarily an endurance race.
Twenty-eight minutes behind RA XI was the MIT car. Their car is top of class and could have been pulled over for speeding. On the other hand, they could be pacing their car since time is only of secondary importance.
The afternoon was challenging as a storm front swept across the Kansas-Colorado state line. The temperature dropped from 90 to 65 degrees. Rain is not good for solar cars. Isn’t that obvious? “All drain, no gain” (running in the rain or with clouds drains the battery without any energy gain from the sun). Also, our electronics and electrical systems haven’t been “rain certified.” Just imagine running in the rain, with semi trucks passing within feet at 70 mph. Maybe it would be a good idea to put the car in the trailer and figure out an alternate strategy.
Wherever you stop for the day (in the cross-country portions of the race), an assigned observer and race official spray paints a line where you stopped. You must start from that spot the next day or suffer additional penalty points that count against your miles. You replenish your miles with additional loops at destination points. So, speed is important in order to be able to cover more distance. But speed eats up your power, which you need to make additional loops. All of this occurs within precisely timed windows.
The scout car headed into the squall line west of Garden City, Kansas, trying to assess the depth of the storm. We were about 20 miles behind as we entered the storm. The truck and trailer pulled off, the convoy arrived, and the car was placed in the trailer.
We caught up with the scout car in eastern Colorado, just short of Lamar. We were on the backside of the storm front, hoping for sunshine. Where should RA XI stop to recharge? At our rendezvous spot, in Lamar, or somewhere else? The scout car raced ahead, and the Prez Prius was assigned to wait for the rest of the team.
We can attest, this part of America is quiet but not empty. We passed massive (and stinky) cattle feed lots. Small rocker arms pump oil from the ground. We drove through an extensive wind turbine complex with probably more than a hundred turbines. And there are many tiny towns with buildings from the mid-1800s and plenty of friendly folks. You pass Sand Hills and a national prairie grass preserve.
Missy and I sat quietly as a local stopped and backed up. He asked with a toothy grin, “Outta gas?” I wanted to reply, “Nope, outta sun,” but wisdom kept my foot out of my mouth. We explained we were waiting for a convoy of vehicles to catch up with us. With a happy wave, the farmer was back on the road. It was so quiet that I did the most inappropriate thing. I called the office. “Well, Dorothy, this may be Kansas, but I’ve got five bars!”
In the meantime, the team decided to press on to Lamar and try “catch rays” there. We looked up as our convoy raced by—at speed limit—lead, truck and trailer (with car inside), chase car, and the Brookes (parents of our drivers). They waved and were gone.
Humm, this place is really quiet. Where are they going? To the hotel? What town?
Thursday morning will start very early as the team must retrace its steps—about an hour’s drive—to start where they had stopped the day before. Wednesday began with a race for underwear and ended with racing the rain. No sign of MIT.
Principia is by far the smallest college in the American Solar Challenge. That comes as no surprise to those who have followed RA One, Two, Three, up through Ten, around the country and around the world—including Australia, Greece, and China. China was my first experience with RA and the Principia solar car team. This summer we’re commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail, by racing from its start in Independence, Missouri, to its terminus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Larry Short, president of the Santa Fe Trail Association (who was sitting across from RA XI in the display area in Independence), pointed out to me that the Association and the National Park Service are not “celebrating” the 200th anniversary of the Trail but “commemorating” it. He explained that the impacts of the great trails—Santa Fe, Oregon, and California—on the Native American peoples should not be celebrated but understood and commemorated. On the hills east of McPherson, Kansas (end point of the first day of the race), are silhouettes of three Native American warriors on horseback to remind us of these First Peoples.
Like the wagon caravans of two centuries ago, the solar car teams travel with their necessary provisions—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and lots of spare parts and tools. And they’re always armed with the GPS coordinates to the nearest Home Depot or auto supply store. Each caravan is led by a scout car, usually an hour ahead of the team. The organizers have provided detailed instructions, listing every stop sign and turn, as well as every apparent hazard. The scouts are looking for the most recent changes along “the trail.”
The Principia team is connected by group text, with over several hundred messages flying across phones in a day. Multiple threads and conversations, from road hazards to wobbly tires to instructions to pass another caravan zip back and forth between team members. East of McPherson was “an alligator,” the shredded tire of a tractor trailer rig. Our truck and trailer team stopped and removed the hazard.
The immediate caravan always has a lead car or van. Then comes the solar car itself, followed closely by the chase car or van. The purpose of the chase vehicle is to protect the solar car. Its goal is to prevent any other vehicle from slipping in behind the very vulnerable solar car. To a massive truck, the tiny flat car below them, covered with black or greyish solar cells, looks like pavement. Based on my experience driving around America, I recommend recruiting chase car drivers from Boston.
Somewhere ahead, behind, or on a parallel route are the support vehicles, primarily the truck and trailer, carrying extra tools and supplies.
The teams are connected by cellphones, short range radios, and CB radio. It was only by happenstance that we were on CB channel 32, the historic number for the Principia solar car (and so acknowledged by the race staff). Every car has a GPS tracker device by which anyone can track the progress of our car via the race website. But . . .
It’s nice to be mistaken for MIT! Or at least, it appears that RA XI has MIT’s tracker assigned to our car. So, it looks like we’re in first place or very close.
Wait! We are in first place or very close!
At the end of the first day of racing, “the last shall be first” (or very close). That’s right, RA XI started the race in last place.
On Sunday, July 25, Missy and I drove down to the workshops behind the Facilities Department on the College campus to wave RA XI and the team off to scrutineering. I made a mental note to ask our webmaster to share photos of “the car” that afternoon. Think of dismantling your great uncle’s grandfather clock, shaking up the parts in a box, and spilling them across the floor. You might recognize some of the parts, but it doesn’t resemble a clock.
Yet, less than a day later and over three hundred miles to the west, RA XI was all put together. The clock was assembled and functional.
To push the metaphor a step further—unfortunately, the clock didn’t meet Swiss standards. Scrutineering is the process by which “the scrutineers” check the standards—for operations, construction, safety, etc. Unless you pass these rigors, your car is not allowed on the track to test for handling and endurance. And without passing handling and endurance, you’re not permitted on the road.
RA XI didn’t pass scrutineering for several days—not until Saturday evening. Only one day was left to pass the road tests. Yikes! But whew, we made it and were the last car to pass scrutineering and log the minimum 205 miles of endurance and handling (thanks to the Brookes brothers—Principia drivers, not tailors).
So, on Tuesday (8/3) morning, sitting in last place was the humble RA XI. Somewhere up the line are Illinois State, University of Illinois, University of California-Berkeley, and MIT. Ken Pratt, Principia dad and veteran team volunteer turned to me in the shadow of the Jackson County Courthouse and said, “The first shall be last.” He was referring to Principia’s habit of being the first car on location. It does help get media attention when you are the only car available for interviews (but Principia College senior Chris Strong would describe his role as team media spokesperson). Then Ken added, “. . . and the last shall be first.”
Being the last to pass scrutineering, RA XI was assigned the last position to leave Independence. You can guess the punch line. Two hundred twenty-two miles and more than six hours later, RA XI arrived first in McPherson, Kansas, swapping leads with MIT. The GPS was really confused.
The solar car race is not just technology. It’s also about strategy. At McPherson, teams could add additional miles to their total, perhaps compensating for penalty deductions. The downside might be risking unnecessary wear and tear or damage to the car or reducing time to recharge the batteries. MIT announced, at McPherson, that they would take the option to run a 22-mile loop (crossing six sets of railroad tracks—ouch—and a length of interstate—stress!).
Principia’s team decided to hold back and take time to recharge the battery and check the car, while not risking unnecessary stress on the car. Ah, but then the team decided to make the loop. Being first to arrive, Principia left first. MIT followed. Then another school decided to add extra miles.
Another challenge with adding miles is that the timing is limited. The cars need to be back on the lot within set times.
Ah-ha! Principia returned on time and in good form! The multiple railroad track crossings were easily navigated. The interstate traffic was manageable and not too intense. RA XI can handle 50 mph in the right lane, with the chase car fending off trucks.
The three-vehicle caravan returned to cheers from several Principia alums and families. Required to sit for 15 minutes, the team was able to calculate that it could do a second loop within deadline. They’re off—aiming for a total of 44 extra miles!
MIT—after raising the original challenge—gulps, sits out their 15 minutes, and heads off for another loop. They make it back, with minutes to spare. If they hadn’t, they would have lost that second set of 22 miles. So, who is in first place?
As I type this, we don’t know. In the meantime, the MIT team is writing a cheer for RA XI! The Solar Car Challenge is as collegial as it is competitive. It is a pleasure to watch young people gather to seriously consider the costs and benefits of taking risks. The decision is made. They notify the race officials and dash for their vehicles. The car and driver must undergo the last-minute safety inspection, and the countdown clock is set. The three vehicles line up—lead, car, chase. The signal is given, and the vehicles pull into traffic.
Back on the lot, other teams might be struggling with overheated batteries or weak solar cells.
I promised you a couple of tips.
It is possible for batteries to overcharge. This was true in the early days of solar car racing. You could be racing along on a bright sunny day and realize that the solar cells were sucking in more energy than you were using. The battery load indicator was an important instrument because the battery could explode. What do you do?
You need something to drain the battery quickly. You can’t just pull over and dump out the battery. This was explained to me during the solar car race in China. Me—all common sense and no technical sense—thought about the fastest energy draining device I could remember— my wife’s electric hairdryer.
The Principia students looked at me and exclaimed, “Don’t you remember the car from California in the last race with the two exhaust pipes? Hair dryers! They hung a pair of hair dryers on the car with a switch to turn them on. Problem solved.”
I wonder what the pit conversation was— “Sunbeam or Norelco?”
However, batteries have improved and so have solar cells. This means you need to be careful in cleaning your solar cells. You need distilled water in large pump canisters, carefully sprayed and gingerly wiped. You must be careful to check your ingredients. Not all distilled water is distilled without chemicals, containing nothing that leaves a residue on your cells.
Tomorrow, I’ll share this space with my wife, Missy. She was touched by the reception that the citizens of Council Grove, Kansas, gave to the teams and cars.
The roar of eight cylinders. The smell of diesel. Thick dark smoke out of the mufflers. The roar of the crowd. Whoa . . . put it in reverse.
I didn’t know that solar cars had exhaust pipes! Professor Brian Kamusinga, one of our RA XI faculty advisors, was pointing out the features in the interior of the solar car entry of University of California, Berkeley.
“Is that a rain gutter?” I asked. You know the white metal downspouts that drain water from the roof. One was laying inside the “CalSol” car. Professor Kamusinga explained that it carried off the heat from the very large battery that stored the energy from the solar cells. Our car, RA XI, has something more sophisticated. It looks like a tube from a vacuum cleaner.
It’s the first full day of racing, starting in Independence—the hometown of President Harry Truman. The solar car teams received their instructions, displaying the cars, posing for photographs, and eye-balling the competition. Solar car racing, I witnessed, is more cooperation that competition. Teams are quick to ask for assistance and just as quick to help each other—sharing tools and scrounging parts.
I asked Professor Kamusinga to identify the best aerodynamic designs. He quickly identified the least aerodynamic design. It was an actual car covered with solar cells!
After walking about the display area, several blocks from the home where Harry and Bess Truman retired after his presidency, I organized the cars into three “hulls”—mono-hull; catamarans; and trimarans. Single hulls can be efficient. They part the air ahead and bring the air back together after they pass. But, the single hulls have a tendency to wobble and tip over. That’s embarrassing—to be sitting in your car and have it tip over (I exaggerate—blown over by strong winds).
RA XI is a double hull—a catamaran. It’s pretty efficient. At first, I worried that the air passing under the car, between the hulls, would lift the car off the ground. Ah, airplane wings are designed to cause lift. So, turn the car upside down. Not literally. Just design the airflow to keep the car on the road. The driver, though, is situated in the left hull. This means that a strong wind coming against the driver’s cab has an undue effect, pushing the car to the side. It might be like landing a plane in a crosswind.
This leads me to the trimaran, in which the driver’s cab is located in a middle hull. The hull, though, does not touch the ground. That would require six wheels, rather than the four expected for this year’s design. The trimaran doesn’t wobble or get unduly blown right or left. However, it means the car is larger and heavier, requiring additional power, and perhaps a bigger and heavier battery.
More disconcerting is the thought that the driver is sitting just inches above the roadway. “Say, is that a muffler laying in the highway? No worries. Just a downspout from California.”
Speaking of four wheels, the 2021 American Solar Challenge has introduced a new category for multi-passenger solar cars. A third of the cars will be traveling with a driver and a passenger. One of the cars is designed for a driver and three passengers. That car will need two downspouts.
The race begins Tuesday. I’ll save the story about hairdryers for then, along with tips on how to clean your solar cells.
Meet the high-voltage junction box for RA XI. ⚡️
Microfinish’s nickel-plated copper bar allows us to effectively distribute electricity throughout our car. Shout out to Microfinish for their support of the team. ☀️🏎
RA XI is making its debut at ASC 2021 soon! Here’s a throwback to some of our favorite solar cars from over the years. Which RA installment of the past was your favorite?
Landon is Prin Solar’s embedded systems developer, who works to program and assemble RA 11’s circuit boards. He writes code for several essential parts of the car, including the lights, battery pack, and data communication between the car’s systems.
“My goal is to help the team as much as possible by contributing what I know, while also gaining practical skills for after college in the process”