Solar car shines despite obstacles in Japan rally

by Kane LoukasStaff

The 17-member University solar car team weathered emotional extremes last weekend by starting the 1998 World Solarcar Rally with a near disaster and ending it with a stellar victory.
The University team finished first in its class and seventh overall out of a pool of 81 teams from corporations, universities and Japanese high schools. The race, which consisted of 25 hours of actual driving time, started Friday morning and ended Sunday evening.
Getting the car to the starting line July 31 proved to be just as daunting a task as the competition.
“With the car, just about anything can happen,” said Tony Sporer, a chemical engineering student and a solar car team member. “You can encounter problems with the real world.” On this trip, Sporer and the other crew members got their fair share of such problems.
A four-day delay in getting the team’s car, Aurora3, through Japanese import customs nearly cost the team a disqualification after they missed the first day of technical inspections July 29. When the vehicle was finally delivered to the racetrack that evening, students worked through the night preparing the car for a last-chance, 9 a.m. entrance inspection Thursday.
The delay made for good gossip among the solar car crews in Akita, Japan. Some tidbits about the holdup even made it into the Solarcar Rally World Wide Web site. Unfortunately, the delay had other effects. A penalty for missing the Wednesday inspection forced Aurora3 to start in the second to last position.
“When the race started, it took us 10 minutes just to cross the starting line,” said Patrick Starr, the mechanical engineering professor who heads the University’s solar car project. The penalty, he said, seriously damaged the team’s chances of winning one of the top overall spots.
When talking about the race, Starr focused on the red tape the team dealt with instead of the race-day events. Recalling the customs delay, he talked about the report from Japanese officials telling him the team’s import documents were missing.
“I assumed it would be attached to the 20-foot-long box the car was in,” Starr said. Losing that document was the major cause of the delay.
Swearing every so often, like a parent enduring a not-so-pleasant experience, Starr described the difficulty in getting the team members to make lists of all the items they planned to bring: “Item 200: one solar car, Item 201: wrench.”
Most universities, including the University of Minnesota, registered for the Junior Class. This category was designated for teams with limited resources, or those using commercial solar cells — $5.50 each –and batteries as opposed to aerospace quality cells — $100 or more each — and batteries.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the Aurora3 team’s major rivals and the only other American team in Akita, is normally a part of the Junior Class for technical as well as financial reasons.
However, in last weekend’s race they registered for the Free Class, one designated for those teams with unlimited resources. Had M.I.T. registered in the Junior Class, they would have pushed the Aurora3 to second place.
Richard Perdichizzi, a senior technical instructor at M.I.T. and the solar car project director, said he couldn’t say for sure why the M.I.T. team was in the free class since its resources are far from unlimited.
The Aurora3’s finish this year topped Aurora-II’s 1995 showing at the World Solarcar Rally, where they finished second in their class and ninth overall.
Now in its sixth year, the University’s solar car project will likely offer increasingly stiff competition to M.I.T. and the more heavily funded Honda and Mitsubishi cars.