Racing the Sun: The Competition

What is this competition, anyway? An international event that involves designing, building and racing solar vehicles, the competition is two-fold. It is comprised of the Formula Sun Grand Prix (FSGP) and the American Solar Challenge (ASC). The FSGP is held on a closed course, and begins with a series of inspections and vehicle and driver qualifying assessments to verify that the car and its drivers are road-ready. Vehicles, like Appalachian State University’s Apperion, that pass inspection, or “scrutineering,” move on to the FSGP track race, where they compete for qualification in the ASC cross-country road race.

Scrutineering stage

The competition’s scrutineering phase includes solar array inspection, battery testing, structural and mechanical vehicle component and driving tests to verify vehicle stability and braking capability. Notably, it also includes verification of insurance, which Team Sunergy found to be one of its most challenging hurdles. Finding both an underwriter and the necessary funding to insure four student drivers to drive a vehicle with no headlights – and that weighs less than a quarter of the typical smart car – proved to take longer than wiring 210 batteries into 35 battery cells of six batteries each. But Chancellor Sheri N. Everts and an anonymous donor came through, and the car passed its final test.

Racetrack qualifier stage

Vehicles that passed all scrutineering inspections then advanced to the Formula Sun track racing qualifier stage. During this phase, each team was required to complete a minimum of 128 1.6-mile laps in one day or 192 laps in two consecutive days. Each driver who wanted to move on to the ASC had to complete a minimum of 33 laps. Those teams that passed scrutineering and met the track racing requirements qualified to race in the ASC.

For a week at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex in Wampum, Pennsylvania, drivers weaved between traffic cones in slalom handling tests, skidded to fast stops in wet road brake tests, and jumped from their vehicles in quick egress tests; crews demonstrated solar array charging capacity, battery load bearing and capacity, and dozens of details, including driver registration, insurance and support vehicle graphics, were scrutinized (or “scrutineered”).

Apperion passed all scrutineering tests in time to begin the first day of track racing. Not all vehicles did. Some crashed during slalom testing and spent valuable time repairing; some had difficulty in the wet road brake testing; others had driver egress and communications tech challenges.

And they’re off…

Day One

Team Sunergy was feeling cautiously optimistic. They went into the first day of track racing with a plan to qualify all four drivers with the minimum of 33 laps per driver and spend the next two days resting, testing and getting mentally and physically prepared for traversing nearly 2,000 highway miles in a tiny, hot cockpit.

Team leader Dan Blakeley kept the team tight – he was the first driver on the track and spend 44 laps meticulously testing strategies for battery use, regeneration, braking and communications with his crew. When he came off the track, he helped the team pit, gave some instructions to the next driver, Duvey Rudow, and then held a trackside meeting. He encouraged his team, noted where they needed to improve and then took the other two drivers aside and went through the track strategy in detail, having them repeat it back until they knew it cold. He kept the driving strategy consistent, suppressing everyone’s urge to max out their speed – and pass Michigan a few times on the track – so they would stay steady and not drain battery power.

At the end of the first day, Team Sunergy not only qualified, it was holding third place. The game had changed.

What does a solar car pit stop sound like?

Staff at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex joked that the solar cars have been of significant interest to the track staff and visitors, since they are practically silent. Maintenance crew mowing the grounds in the distance were often the source of the loudest engine noise during the week the solar cars occupied the racetrack. While not NASCAR, the pit stops were still quite exciting, as the student crew learned how to quickly remove the top of the car, check all systems including tires, brakes and telemetry, change drivers, replace the “lid,” undergo a horn and turn signal inspection, and return to the track.

Days 2 and 3

Now a contender for a podium spot, Apperion was going to race the next two days. After holding steady in third place, Team Sunergy suffered a flat tire on Day Two. Briefly abandoning the “steady as you go” strategy, they tried to make up time, but slipped in their standings and began the final day of track racing in fourth place. Day Three was cloudy and rainy. Apperion started the day with a full battery and returned to a consistency-over-speed strategy. Before the end of the day, Michigan and Principia, having solidified their first and second-place standings, left the track, and the race for third was on between Appalachian and the University of Minnesota. Apperion took on water in the wheel wells and the team was getting concerned about compromising the batteries. Pit crew boss Jon Linck listened to his team’s concerns, then calmly strode over with a large drill, and bored two holes in the vehicle’s floor. The water drained out, and Apperion was back on the track.

Blakeley rounded out the race for Team Sunergy, completing Apperion’s three-day run with 414 laps to Minnesota’s 386. He pulled across the finish line, exited the vehicle and was greeted with a celebratory cooler of water over the head from his team.

“We were a little concerned we would not bring it back up to third,” Blakeley said in a post-soaking interview, “but ultimately being consistent brought us back up to third place so not only do we get to…bring our success back to Appalachian State but we also get to go into the American Solar Challenge with our heads held high.”

He took a short break to take in the moment, and then spoke for the team, each member of which was emotional from lack of sleep, tension and a feeling of “ wow – we just did this.”

“To come to an event like this after two years of countless hours of work and dedication,” Blakeley said, surrounded by his giddy team, “…you just can’t describe it.”

Thirteen vehicles qualified for the ASC. Team Sunergy was the first team from North Carolina ever to enter the international competition. They were the only North Carolina team in the competition and the only team in from the South to qualify for the ASC.

The American Solar Challenge

Before their eyes had dried, the team was readying Apperion for its short, trailered journey to Brecksville, Ohio, where it would enjoy a day of rest and charge its batteries before the start flag waved on the eight-day journey across the Midwest. The 2016 ASC had four stages. The nine checkpoint and stage stop locations along the route were located in national parks. Each team had to check in on the designated day. If they ran out of battery power or had a mechanical failure that prevented them from completing the stage or making it to the designated checkpoint during daylight hours, they had to trailer their vehicle, drive it to the next stop, and take a time penalty. In addition to battery regeneration from collecting solar rays on the course, teams could charge their batteries for two hours at the beginning and end of each day. They began each day with the power they could recoup from the sun during the charging sessions.

2016 American Solar Challenge Route and Checkpoints

The 2016 American Solar Challenge route ran 1,975 miles  through seven states from Brecksville, Ohio to Hot Springs, South Dakota. The route included checkpoints at nine national parks, historic sites or partner properties throughout the Midwest.

Each solar vehicle traveled between a scout vehicle and a chase vehicle, and 11 of the 12 Team Sunergy members made the trip, the only exception being Jongmin Na, who had returned to his native country of South Korea.

Road racing is more onerous than track racing. Highway conditions vary and include factors like train tracks and potholes which can wreak havoc on delicate wiring systems. Traffic, which makes overtaking and passing other race cars logistically difficult, stoplights and unexpeceted obstacles, like Amish buggies, add to the mix.

Driving Apperion on the road takes some getting used to, explained Blakeley. Drivers sit in the middle of the vehicle, so they have to reorient themselves to driving from the center rather than the left side.

Twenty entered. Twelve prevailed.

Before qualifying for the American Solar Challenge, all teams had to pass scrutineering inspections and then qualify during the Formula Sun Grand Prix.

On Day One of the ASC, University of Kentucky struggled with motor control and had to pull out. On Day Three, Iowa State University’s car slid into a ditch.

Team Sunergy completed Stage 1 in fourth place. By the end of Stage 2 they dropped to sixth. Stage 3 presented challenges to all teams. Heavy cloud cover and rain made on-route battery regeneration difficult. By the end of Stage 3, Team Sunergy made the difficult decision to pull over in a sunny spot and charge its batteries, and trailered into the checkpoint that evening. Beginning Stage 4 in ninth place, Apperion entered the stage with full battery capacity and was one of only three vehicles to complete the final day, replete with hills in addition to clouds and rain, on its own power. Apperion chased Michigan the last stage, and had the second-fastest time in the stage. “The last stage was the most challenging of them all,” the team posted on its blog. But by the end of Stage 4, Team Sunergy had gained three places to finish sixth overall.

American Solar Challenge on Facebook

View the American Solar Challenge Facebook page, which chronicles the 8-day race. Includes lots of photos and information.

At the end of a 17-day road trip, and a two-year journey, the team posted on their blog: “The American Solar Challenge has been completed but the challenge of advancing solar transportation has a long path ahead. We look forward to carrying the momentum of our success from this event and bringing more bright minds from Appalachian State onto our team to compete in future events around the globe.”

A competition that fosters collaboration – a bystander’s observations

What is it like to be in this environment? All Michigan digs aside, the competition is one that leaves observers and participants alike with the overall impression that everyone shares in a spirit of collaboration. The work of developing solar technology is important, and everyone wants it to succeed.

When vehicles made it through scrutineering and onto the track in Pittsburgh, everyone cheered. Teams shared parts, and helped one another problem-solve technical issues. Team Sunergy’s blog characterizes the atmosphere as “rampant with friendliness and inter-teamwork,” and describes a “solar-car racing community [that] has been very friendly and welcoming to our new team.”

A July 22 blog post relayed: “Principia College's solar team has lent Team Sunergy 3 rims for our car so we have an extra set for when we need to change tires. Without awesome teams like Principia and Iowa State (who donated our car frame) we would not have made it as far as we have. We reciprocate this generosity by sharing power with our neighbors.”

Team Sunergy Blog

View the Team Sunergy blog for a daily recounting of the entire race experience, including their 1,975-mile trip.

GIVE

The generosity of private donors allowed Team Sunergy to design and build a high-performance solar vehicle and travel it to an international competition. In less than two years, they were holding their own in a competition that included world-renowned engineering schools. Their plans for the future include a new design that will set the standard for road-ready, commuter vehicles. Your support can make this happen!

Acknowledgements

Web work by Pete Montaldi and Derek Wycoff. Video production by Garrett Ford. Photography by Marie Freeman, with additional images by Bailey Winecoff and Dr. Lee Ball. Audio production by Dave Blanks. Writing by Megan Hayes and Elisabeth Wall. Art by Jim Fleri. Editing by Linda Coutant. Logistics management by Stephanie Naoum. Technical support by Wes Craig. Creative direction and executive production by Troy Tuttle.

Special thanks to Dr. Lee Ball and Dr. Jeremy Ferrell for the context, history and on-site updates.

Shoutout to the Principia College and Iowa State University for the support, mentorship and parts you generously provided to Team Sunergy.

Very special thanks to Andrew Grimes, and every member of Team Sunergy. You are an inspiration.