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Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary gives Cal Poly Pomona the green flag in Indianapolis and Sunrayce 95 begins.

Checking out the cockpit is standard fare when a solar car is at rest.

MIT driver Goro Tamai is ready and confident.

Checking out the cockpit is standard fare when a solar car is at rest.

Clarkson University placed 2nd in the artistic design competition.

Clarkson University placed 2nd in the artistic design competition.

Drexel University Solar Car

Sunrayce 95

Michael Coe

©1995 NREL

With dreams of glory—and solar-powered cars so efficient they reached highway speeds using less energy than an average blow-dryer—the top teams arrived in Indianapolis for Sunrayce 95. Most of the teams from 46 North American colleges and universities were just hoping to qualify for the grueling nine-day, 1,250-mile race—the biennial intercollegiate cross-country solar car race. Other teams had different intentions—they were there to dethrone the University of Michigan, which ruled the 1990 and 1993 races.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the wild card. The team itself wasn't sure if it was a contender. "We don't know," said team captain Goro Tamai. Of the 65 teams entered in Sunrayce 95, the top 30 teams were seeded based on technical proposals submitted in 1994. MIT didn't make the cut. Fortunately, rules limiting solar array size and power helped MIT build a competitive car on a small budget. "With the new rules, Sunrayce is a brain race, not a money race," said Tamai.

Sponsored primarily by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors Corporation, Sunrayce 95 is a two-year educational experience that provides more than 2,000 students with a hands-on learning experience.

"Sunrayce is all-encompassing," said Tamai. "You learn about engineering, manufacturing, project management, and fund raising. My educational experience at MIT wouldn't have been nearly as complete without Sunrayce. There are some things you can't learn from a book."

The Sunrayce experience culminates with the crosscountry race. To compete in the race, cars must pass a rigorous inspection to ensure compliance with structural and safety requirements. They must also drive at least 50 miles around the Indianapolis

Raceway Park track averaging 25 mph. Over a three-day period from June 16-18, thirty-eight cars qualified for the race.

The race would start June 20 in downtown Indianapolis and finish June 29 at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. The team with the lowest cumulative time would win.

Race Route Diary Day 1

Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary waved the green flag to start Sunrayce 95. The cars left at one-minute intervals based on qualifying position. With the sun shining powerfully overhead, Cal Poly Pomona and MIT, the top two qualifiers, engaged in a heated battle over the day's 65 mile course. The teams exchanged the lead repeatedly, at times racing down the road side-by-side. Both teams averaged 36.1 mph for the course, with Cal Poly taking the finish line 5 seconds ahead. The University of Missouri-Columbia finished third, Mankato and Winona State Universities fourth, and the University of Minnesota fifth.

Day 2

Cal Poly Pomona set the early pace, reaching 50-55 mph on open highways. Ninety minutes into the 169-mile leg, Cal Poly's motor controller overheated, and the team pulled over to repair it. MIT moved into the lead, took a wrong turn, and lost the chase vehicle in the U-turn. Tamai didn't notice, got back on the correct route, and confused another chase vehicle for his own. While the team still finished first for the day, MIT was accessed a 15-minute penalty for separating from its chase vehicle.

The big story was Northern Essex Community College from Haverhill, Massachusetts. With one of the smallest budgets, the team built an ultra lightweight car and a folding array that gave the team one of the best size-to-power ratios of any car in the race. Northern Essex stormed the field, catching all but three teams.

Mechanical failure of Michigan's custom-built magnesium wheels forced them to trailer their car to the finish line. Behind by seven hours, they had little chance at a third straight Sunrayce title.

Day 3

Minnesota set a new Sunrayce record for average daily speed racing along the banks of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Cal Poly Pomona faired badly. They watched the other leaders rip past them while fixing two flat tires.

Minutes from the finish, Northern Essex's car blew a tire and spun off the road. Scouting Minnesota team members helped Northern Essex repair the tire and the team took first place for the day, minutes in front of MIT and Minnesota. With Northern Essex and MIT assessed penalties, Minnesota won the day's leg, averaging 43.7 mph over the 165-mile leg and breaking Cal State LA's record for this stretch. Nineteen hours back, and out of contention, was Michigan, who trailered the vehicle with a problem they couldn't fix.

In sixth place, George Washington discovered that their array was allergic to the sun. The silver epoxy material used to mount the solar cells reacted with the cells' aluminum backing to create a chemical reaction that restricted the flow of electricity.

Day 4

The 156 mile course from Fulton to Lee's Summitt, MO was a solar racer's dream. The sun-drenched course was flat, had few traffic lights and was mainly open, four-lane highways. Minnesota, Northern Essex, MIT and Cal Poly Pomona smoked the course from start to finish. Northern Essex got the jump on Minnesota after a red light and arrived at the finish line first. A 25-minute penalty assessed to Northern Essex gave Minnesota the win and a new speed record—47.7 mph. "If you told me three weeks ago that our car would be going up hill at 55 miles per hour, I wouldn't have believed it," said a jubilant Jessica Gallagher, Minnesota's team captain. She wasn't alone. The top cars were finishing 12 hours faster than Sunrayce officials had predicted.

Overall, MIT now led Pomona by nine minutes, Minnesota by 10 minutes and Northern Essex by 42 minutes. In fifth place, 91 minutes behind MIT, sat George Washington, the team most experts thought had the best car.

Rest Day

Problem-plagued Michigan quit after a tire blowout on Day 4 almost caused their car to swerve into on-coming traffic. "It's really sad," said team manager Betsy White. "We worked for two years for this race." In a gesture of sportsmanship, Michigan donated some of its spare tires to MIT. The day also brought the first rain of Sunrayce 95. It continued into the night.

Day 5

Bad weather is usually a solar car's nemesis, yet George Washington's car performed beautifully as dark clouds and rain covered the 152-mile course from Lee's Summit to Manhattan, Kansas. George Washington arrived first, 47 minutes ahead of the second place vehicle. Now, just 38 minutes separated the top five cars in the overall standings.

Day 6

Overcast skies greeted the racers. By midday of the 150 mile leg, George Washington was 22 minutes in front of MIT Then, motor controller problems forced them to slow down, and MIT cut into their lead. George Washington finished first for the day (moving into second place overall) 18 minutes behind MIT. Minnesota finished third, Cal Poly Pomona fourth, and the battery-depleted Northern Essex fifth.

Day 7

The 166 mile course from Smith Center to St. Francis,

Drexel passes through a small, midwestern town.

Drexel passes through a small, midwestern town.

Cal Poly Pomona team-members attaches the solar array for another day of racing.

The University of Minnesota crosses the finish line for a 2nd place title.

The MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) car won Sunrayce '95 with the fastest average speed yet for the 1,150-mile race— 37.2 mph.

The University of Minnesota crosses the finish line for a 2nd place title.

The MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) car won Sunrayce '95 with the fastest average speed yet for the 1,150-mile race— 37.2 mph.

Where's the Motor?

After observing a similar setup in Australia's Northern Territory University, the George Washington team built a hub-motor for their racer. "It took four students a year to design and build the motor," said captain Kory Knudtson. The hub-motor eliminated the transmission, increasing the car's efficiency. Sunrayce 95 officials honored the team with a technical innovation award. The vehicle also won the artistic design competition.

Where's the Solar Array?

Northern Essex Community College had a grand concept—build the lightest, most powerful car in the field. The lightweight, bullet-shaped car had a 1,350 Watt folding solar array that was stored in a rear compartment during racing. While other cars could run directly off sunlight, the Northern Essex car could not. Instead, the car ran solely off batteries. Fully charged, they provided 220-230 miles. As needed, the team stopped and deployed the array.

Keeping Cool and Efficient

Messiah College from Pennsylvania developed an ingenious system to keep their solar cells cool and gain an advantage. They used aluminum foam and air ducts to cool the array. The team mounted the cells onto the foam, a rigid, lightweight material. The foam provided structural support for the solar cells. Air ducts built into the top of the car channeled air underneath the array and exhausted the heated air out the back.

Kansas had few towns or stoplights. In a tremendous display of speed and efficiency, Minnesota averaged 50.4 mph for the day, all the more remarkeable considering the 1,700 foot gain in elevation. MIT averaged 49.3 mph and finished within four minutes of Minnesota. "We didn't realize how fast we were going until about ten miles from the finish line," said Minnesota's Scott Grabow. "It was our fondest moment." With only 223 miles of racing left, Minnesota knew they couldn't outrun MIT. "Our only chance to win is if MIT has a breakdown," said Grabow.

Day 8

The 171 mile course from St. Francis to Aurora, Colorado was the race's longest leg. It gradually rose 2,500 feet in elevation, too. Dark, ominous clouds hovered over Aurora. Northern Essex attacked the hardest, but couldn't sustain the pace and stopped to recharge. Cal Poly Pomona passed MIT and

Minnesota with 30 miles to go, won the day, and moved into third place overall. MIT's overall lead over Minnesota was 49 minutes. Heavy thunderstorms postponed solar charging of depleted batteries that evening.

Day 9

Cold, dark and wet conditions ruled out early morning battery charging. "We don't know how much energy we have in our battery," said Tamai, so MIT planned to drive just fast enough to win. Other teams, knowing they didn't have enough battery storage to make it to the finish, replaced their depleted battery packs with fully charged packs or used a generator to charge their batteries—absorbing a 5.5 hour penalty. Many teams tried to make it under their own power, and crawled to the finish line.


MIT experienced its first breakdown of the race. Rain had seeped into the car and damaged the motor controller. The team fixed the problem in 15 minutes, but Minnesota had passed them. MIT was only traveling 10-15 mph. How far ahead was Minnesota? "We were getting reports that Minnesota had already finished," said Tamai. A tire blowout ten miles from the finish cost Minnesota several minutes, but they crossed the finish line at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. Out came the stopwatches.

Thirty minutes later, MIT crossed the finish line to win Sunrayce 95. After 1,250 miles and nine days of racing, MIT had finished just 18 minutes and 49 seconds in front of Minnesota in the closest Sunrayce finish ever.

"I didn't know we had won until Jerry Williams (a Sunrayce official) handed me the checkered flag," said Tamai. MIT averaged 37.23 mph for the 1,250-mile course, breaking Michigan's 1993 record by 10 mph.

Rounding out the top ten overall were: Cal Poly Pomona third, George Washington fourth, Stanford fifth, Queens University sixth, Northern Essex seventh, Western Michigan University eighth, Mankato and Winona State Universities ninth, and the University of Missouri-Columbia tenth.

When the next Sunrayce event is held in 1997 over a similar route, Tamai won't be there to help MIT defend its title. He will, however, always remember winning the 1995 race. "It was the absolute highlight of my college career," he said.


Michael Coe, Public Affairs Office, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1617 Cole Blvd., Golden, CO • 303275-3000. *fei

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