Eight days. Three thousand kilometers. Cars powered by the sun. October 2007 marked the 20th anniversary of the Panasonic World Solar Challenge (PWSC), a solar car race through the Australian Outback from Darwin to Adelaide. While the Missouri S&T Solar Car Team did not make the journey this year, two alumni did. Brian Call, ME’97, MS EMch’99, and Gail Lueck, EMgt’02, MS EMgt’03, both served in volunteer staff positions for the event, helping with inspections of the vehicles in Darwin and working at the control stops along the race.
Not so long ago, Call and Lueck were “raycing” solar cars with the Missouri S&T Solar Car Team. Both were part of the team that won Sunrayce 99. Lueck continued with the team following the 1999 victory, serving as team president and competing in the World Solar Challenge in 1999 and 2001. While Call had designed and built parts for the 1999 solar car, Solar Miner II, he chose to go on Sunrayce 99 as part of the race staff. It was the beginning of a tradition that several other Solar Car Team alumni have followed, including Lueck, who joined the race staff for the 2003 American Solar Challenge. Call and Lueck are now part of the staff that runs the solar car and bike races in North America.
So, when the North American Solar Challenge was postponed until 2008, they needed a way to get their solar car fix for the year. PWSC provided a solution. Call had always wanted to see the race down under. For Lueck, it was the opportunity to come back for the 20-year anniversary, but as more than just a spectator. Taking a five-week vacation from work, they packed their bags, spent two days flying, camped in the bush, and arrived in Darwin for the start of scrutineering.
Scrutineering is a process by which each solar car is inspected to ensure the vehicle meets the regulations and is roadworthy for the trip through the Outback. There are a number of stations, including mechanical, electrical, measurement (Call’s station), and support vehicle/safety (Lueck’s station).
This station included measuring the length, width, and height of the car to make sure these dimensions were within the regulations. It also involved measuring a key component of the solar car, the solar array, which is used to collect sunlight that will power the car. Array measurement is not about measuring the power of a given array, but rather the physical size of the array. Regulations require the solar array on each car to be no greater than six m2. Since arrays are composed of many solar cells, and aren’t necessarily rectangular solar cells, this can require quite a bit of calculation to determine if a team is within the limit.
Manufacturer’s data, drawings, and calculations are provided by the teams to justify their compliance. The array measurement station then cross checks this information to make sure the car that was built is in alignment with the data provided. If differences exist, it’s back to counting solar cells, measuring their area, and dusting off the calculator to run the math.
While the rest of scrutineering was happening inside a building, the support vehicle/safety inspections occurred outside. Racing a solar car is not only about the driver and car – it’s also about the entire caravan and crew that is protecting the solar car on the open road. For this reason, lead and chase vehicles (the vehicles that will be traveling directly in front of and behind the solar car) are checked for flashing amber lights, CB radio communication, and appropriate signage.
This station also includes a meeting with the team’s safety officer to verify that the team has the appropriate safety equipment and knows how to use it. Some of the required items include orange cones, warning flags, safety vests, a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit. With teams from 21 countries and some not very fluent in English, communication can be very interesting. For one team, much of the conversation happened through demonstration and use of a translation dictionary.
Teams that successfully passed scrutineering and completed the speed trials and braking tests met at the start line in Darwin on Oct 21. The trip through the Outback includes seven mandatory control stops, where teams are required to stop for a minimum of 30 minutes. During this time, the solar arrays can be aimed at the sun to charge the car’s battery pack; however, no maintenance can be done on the car. Most teams use these control stops as a chance to change drivers, use the restroom, grab a quick snack from the roadhouse, check on weather conditions, talk with media crews, interact with the locals, and check on the progress of the other teams. Call and Lueck both served as control stop assistants along the route.
Each control stop is managed by a ‘red shirt’ clerk of the course and a ‘blue shirt’ assistant. This two-person team is responsible for notifying headquarters of the official time each team enters and leaves the control stop. Other duties include assessing penalties, swapping observers among the teams, and organizing the flow of traffic at the control stop. Most of the time, the control stops are held at roadhouses – a service station with fuel pumps, a diner/convenience store, a few motel rooms, and a caravan park.
While the Outback has much less in terms of crowds and media, there are other considerations. Road trains (a semi with three-to-four trailers) make regular stops at the roadhouses to refuel, casting large shadows that may impact a team’s ability to charge their solar car. Aboriginal kids come to check out the action and look for handouts. Several teams bring their own media crews to document the adventure. Communications can be difficult at times, relying on locals to fax in timing results and hoping the satellite phone works because there is no cell phone signal in most areas.
A week after starting out from Darwin, Call, Lueck, and the other staff and teams made it to Adelaide. Some teams made it under their own power, including Noun, a team from the Netherlands, which won the event again – for the fourth time in a row. Other teams came in on trailers after experiencing technical difficulties on the route or getting caught in a dust storm for the last leg of the race. The end of the race called for celebration for the teams and a look to the next challenge in 2008.
The 2008 North American Solar Challenge will be held July 13-21. The event is scheduled to start in Dallas, Texas and finish in Calgary, AB, Canada, with the route passing through Neosho, Mo., Omaha, Neb., Sioux Falls, S.D., Fargo, N.D., Winnipeg, MB, Brandon, MB, Regina, SK, and Medicine Hat, AB. Expect to find the Missouri S&T Solar Car Team as well as Call and Lueck in their staff positions along the route.