U team powered up to qualify for cross-country solar car race

by Rob Kuznia

When the University Aurora 4 team members unveiled their new solar car near Northrop Mall on Wednesday morning, it was evident that the project was a labor of love.
After unloading the car from the truck, one team member slowly drove the playing card-shaped car around the mall area, while the other 37 white-clad team members surrounded the car to guard the solar panel that constitutes the car’s entire top side.
“Don’t be squeamish about pushing people out of the way,” a team member said to the others when a passerby got too close.
The car is the fourth of its kind coming from the Institute of Technology. University President Mark Yudof and H. Ted Davis, dean of the Institute of Technology, made public statements at the unveiling.
Today the team leaves for Michigan to qualify for Sunrayce 99, which begins in Washington, D.C., on June 20, and ends in Orlando, Fla., nine days later.
Since 1993, the team has participated in a biennial, cross-country race. In 1995, the University team placed second, just behind Massachusettes Institute of Technology. The team’s old cars, Aurora 2 and Aurora 3, were used for testing in the development of Aurora 4.
Since then, the two schools have considered each other rivals.
“(Comments) go back and forth between us and MIT,” said team member Brian Ulman.
But placing well does more than just provide fodder for cross-country banter.
“The public relations benefits for the University can be huge,” said program manager Kevin Grotheim. “Especially if you place in first, second or third.”
Davis said the project is part of what attracts students to the University. “I have had many parents who told me their kid was here because of the car in the last two years,” he said.
Grotheim said besides recruitment material, being competitive also reaps news coverage, which benefits the sponsors.
“KARE 11 and WCCO are always good to us,” he said. On Wednesday morning, Grotheim was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio.
This year, the $250,000 car is sponsored by 17 companies, including Target, Northwest Airlines and Hewlett Packard.
Elizabeth Watkins, another team project manager, said the advertising pays off for the sponsors.
“On our brochures, all these companies are exposed to the student body,” Watkins said. “And parades are amazing. Last year, I heard people saying, ‘Oh, Pepsi!’ And this year, it will be, ‘Oh, Target!'”
While Pepsi isn’t sponsoring the car this year, Target is a platinum sponsor — they granted the team more than $30,000.
Target Corporate Advertising Manager Pat Leahy did not want to disclose the exact amount.
“We contributed tons of money,” Leahy said. “But I wouldn’t want to say (how much), for fear it got back to God knows where.”
Publicizing dollar amounts usually leads to a flood of money seekers, said Laura Davis, another Target advertising manager.
“Other teams from other schools ask why we don’t give them money,” he said. “What can I say? Minnesota is my home state.”
Since the University’s team achieved several high placements and won a race in Japan last year, the sponsors have increased their share since 1993, Watkins said. And winning can reap more winning, because better resources mean better cars.
“Other teams don’t take it as seriously as us because they don’t have the resources that go into building the car that we do,” said Ulman.
At the same time, success isn’t based solely on money.
“Obviously, it helps to have more cash,” said Watkins. “But it also comes down to the time we spend on it.”
Working on the car was like having a full-time job for many members. Watkins, for instance, had to quit her internship job at 3M last summer. Two years ago, when the team first started working on the project, members worked between 20 and 40 hours per week, Watkins said. “But when we get closer (to the end), it’s about 60 hours,” she said.
There is a risk that the thousands of logged hours will go to waste. Grotheim said the qualifying standards for the race are harsh.
“The race can only allow 40 teams for safety reasons, but around 60 teams have cars,” he said. “It’s pretty real world.”
At the same time, being involved looks great on a rÇsumÇ, he added.