AUGUST 29, 2008

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North American Solar Challenge Auto Race Comes to Eastern Campus

Photo of Eastern solar car challenge.
Driver Nick Simon and the University of Minnesota solar car entry was the first of 15 cars to arrive at the Eastern Oklahoma State College McAlester campus on the first leg from Plano, TX, on their 2,400 mile race to Calgary Canada in the North American Solar Challenge solar auto race.

When Nick Simon crossed the first checkpoint finish line in his three-wheeled space-looking vehicle, he wasn’t worried about the high price of a gallon of gasoline but he was concerned with the cloud filled overcast and threatening skies which had earlier in the day delivered rain.

Simon, an aerospace engineering major and junior at the University of Minnesota, had just completed the first leg of a 2,400 mile solar-powered North American Solar Challenge auto race when he arrived on the Eastern Oklahoma State College McAlester campus Sunday (July 13).

He and 15 other drivers had started the race earlier that day from Plano, TX, with the first scheduled over night stop in Neosho, MO, that evening. The race is slated to end July 22 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, with eight other stops along the way.

Each of the 15 teams must have two drivers, but may have as many as four in their 20 member support teams, a North American Solar Challenge representative and checkpoint member Paul Hirtz said.

The University of Minnesota car, #35 Centaurus, left McAlester for Neosho 30 minutes after arrival with its advance car in the lead and a follow-up car completing the 3-car caravan.
Participants must spend 30 minutes at each checkpoint, “but may spend more time if needed, although it costs them race time,” Hirtz said.

The one person cars are small. The highest point is not more than 4 feet off the ground. The Minnesota car weighs 190 kg or about 418 lbs, uses brushless DC motors to power the car, lithium polymer batteries to store power and SunPower A-300 mono-crystalline silicone cells to generate 1500 watts of power to charge the batteries and propel the car.
Even though Simon may not be worried about the high price of gas, the solar-powered cars are not in the average family budget. Hirtz said the price of the competitors cars range from $150,000 to $800,000 each. He said some of the cars can reach speeds of 80 miles per hour, but “drivers must abide by state speed and traffic laws.”

Each car must pass a preliminary inspection and challenge to enter the race to ensure that they meet all safety and endurance qualifications for the race the week before at Texas Motorsports Ranch in Cresson, TX.
The event hosted more than 400 people on the McAlester campus including more than 30 youngsters who competed in two divisions of toy solar car building and racing sponsored by BP American Production Co., Wilburton Division, during Sunday’s pit stop activities.

Hirtz said that the average building time for the cars is about two years. The experience gained by the students takes the learning curve well out of the classroom into the relm of entrepreneurship. The teams must get financing, outsource some of the manufacturing, contract services as well as design and build the solar cars.