Solar cars race into town on way to Florida

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Rolling into town Thursday afternoon with a whole caravan following were the solar cars of the 2003 Dell-Winston Solar Challenge.

Powered by the sun that blazed throughout the area today, students from Juarez, Mexico; Houston, Miss.; Newburgh, N.Y.; Columbus, Ind.; and Ridgway, Colo., are racing across five states and 1,500 miles in nine days to see who can travel the most miles in their solar cars and who can do so the fastest.

The students travel from Round Rock, Texas, to Cocoa, Fla.

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The cars of all different shapes, sizes and colors managed to make their way from Natchitoches Thursday, traveling on U.S. 84 through to Natchez where they spent the night and rest today.

The students, led with a car in front of them to navigate and one behind to caution other drivers fo the slow-moving solar car, pulled into the Natchez Visitor’s Center Thursday afternoon. The students will charge their cars there in the sun today.

But do not worry if you are staying at the Ramada Inn in any rooms next to the students while they stay here Thursday night and Friday because many of them are too tired to do anything but rest.

&uot;I’m pretty wiped out,&uot; Chelsey Johnson, team captain of the Ridgway, Colo. team said.

And the cars really are powered by the sun. Erin McCloskey, Katie Nummy and Deanna D’alfonso, all of Newburgh, N.Y., said that is the question they get the most, besides the &uot;Do girls actually build and drive it?&uot;

All of the cars have solar panels that are charged by the sun. Each team makes them differently but essentially all of them are made of silicon that is grown then cut into shapes before circuits are layered through them.

And the cars are slow and very fragile. They are only built to handle normal road conditions so if a road is rough, the vehicles are put on their trailers until the road is smoother.

And rain, that will not stop this race. Again, the cars will just be trailered and carried to the next destination.

The cars range from 35 miles per hour to a maximum of about 50 so they are many times traveling below the speed limit.

On two lane roads, if the drivers see they are holding up traffic, they ride on the shoulder if it is smooth enough. If not, they stop.

These cars have been creeping across the country for eight years now. The challenge began in 1993. the Winston School in Dallas started building solar cars in 1991 but decided they wanted to race other high schools.

Creator and director Lehman Marks then decided to teach the program to others, now reaching more than 800 schools in 20 countries.

The Winston School even uses a ray that collects 15 percent of the schools energy from the sun.

The challenge is the largest and longest-running high school solar car race.

The challenge rotates every other year from a track race around Texas Motor Speedway, where the home team (the Winston School) does compete, to the cross-country race.

And Marks said the best way for other schools to start a team is to come see the race, like a school from Biloxi will do between the Natchez and Houston parts of the race.

And there are, of course, some rules to the competition.

The cars must be able to stop within a certain distance, the driver must be able to get out of the car in a certain amount of time in case of fire and the car must use lead acid batteries.

&uot;Everything else is if you can imagine it, you can do it,&uot; John Ready, a junior at the Winston School and public relations spokesman for the race, said.

Stipulations for the race itself include things that will keep the students safe in the sun and heat such as mandatory breaks, wearing hats to protect them from the sun and dietary hints to stay hydrated and healthy.

Throughout the race, the students are competing to see who can actually ride the most miles, because some areas are optional trailering areas. Whoever traverses the most miles wins. In case of a tie, the team traveling at the highest average speed wins.

But the students say it is not really about the competition.

&uot;Being able to meet the people across the country&uot; is what Mandy Davis of Houston, Miss. said is the best thing about the race.

Johnson said the most interesting thing for him has been the experience he had driving the Indiana team’s car. That team is down to just one driver as one was injured before the race and one is sick and cannot drive. The other teams are rotating helping Indiana drive across the country.

Overall, through the planning, building and driving, Johnson and the others said it is an experience they will never forget and one that has taught them more than just about electrical engineering or solar power.

&uot;The solar car project is the largest learning experience I’ve had,&uot; Johnson said. From leadership, to teamwork, to mechanical and electrical engineering and to design, the students in the program have learned a lot.

&uot;Watching the kids grow upŠsee them take their talents and use them,&uot; that is what Marks said it the joy for him.