Solar car members take third nationally

V. Paul

While manning a 35-foot radio tower under a windy, cloud-covered sky in the middle of a two-mile race track, Chris Messer would get a small electric shock every time he reached for the radio receiver to communicate with the University’s solar race car driver.
It took more than six shocks before the head race strategist and his teammates decided to relocate.
“It was when (Messer) started having fun with the shocks that I started to worry,” said Dylan Ebner, a computer engineering senior who was out there with Messer.
While bringing back stories like this, the 22-member University Solar Vehicle Project team also brought back third place in last week’s Formula Sun Grand Prix in Kansas. The team earned a second-place berth in open-class competition during the race as well.
Competing against 14 other university teams in what was the first-ever track race for solar cars in the United States, the University’s team — made up of six veteran racers and a gaggle of newbies — raced a heavily modified Aurora3 , a car originally designed in 1997 before any on the current team knew of the project.
Institute of Technology Dean H. Ted Davis was on hand Tuesday afternoon with camera crews and project supporters to welcome the team back at the David M. Lily Plaza, next to Northrop Auditorium.
“I’m glad you did as you did. When I first got the e-mail, I was nervous. How many flats can you fix in a day?” Davis said.
Eight is the answer to that question. During the first day of the three-day race, Aurora3 stopped six times to fix a flat-tire problem that stemmed from faulty tire alignment. The team worked late that night to correct the flaw, and the next two racing days passed without a hitch, Ebner said.
“These people pulled it off. They’re so together. They made it work and came back with third,” said Laurie Miller, a graduate student in electrical engineering who was on the 1997 team. She was impressed they were able to race in a car they did not build themselves, she said.
This year’s team used the race as an opportunity to test out their own theories and gain practical experience for designing their own car, the Borealis. With the fifth University solar car since 1993, the team plans to race in next year’s American Solar Challenge.
“I felt like this is the most prepared team, just because we’ve gained so much experience early in the process,” Messer said. He was on the 1999 team that placed fourth out of 29 cars in the Sunnyrace in Florida and 23rd of 40 racers at the World Solar Challenge in Australia.
Despite the fact that the 22 students have to balance work and school to make time to work on the University’s solar car — for no academic credit — there is no shortage of sun racers on campus.
“It’s a challenge, and then it becomes an addiction,” said Todd Begalke, an electrical engineering senior who led the team’s electrical group.

V. Paul Virtucio welcomes comments at [email protected]