The odd vehicle whose tires created its only sound as it whizzed past a group of proud students last week could have been mistaken for a mobile ping-pong table.That salient feature would be the 13-foot rectangle of glossy black solar panels, the driving force behind the revamped three-wheeler created by engineering and automotive students at Ben Barber Career Tech Academy.The team, which placed respectably in a solar-car race at Texas Motor Speedway a year ago, are prepping for their biggest challenge yet – a 1,400-mile cross-country race to Los Angeles this week.The students will make the eight-day trip with a leaner and greener version of their car, which is about 300 pounds lighter and toting a more powerful motor and solar panels. But it’s not the latest technology, which is part of the challenge.“Because of expense and the rules in our division, we can’t get all of the newer technology out there,” said Chase Grigsby, who graduated in June but has stayed on as captain of the 11-student Shine Runners team. “This is consumer-available technology here.”The students and their teachers – Rob Goodson and Jackie Bishop – have given up half of their summer to hammer away at their project at Ben Barber, the Mansfield district’s vocational school.They invested donations of $8,000 and many parts into the upgrade. After the Shine Runners’ success in its first attempt last year, the school district agreed to allocate $20,000 to the project this year. About $11,000 of that is committed for hotel rooms along the route and in Los Angeles, the students said.That cost doesn’t include food, which Taylor Davis, also a 2013 graduate, found hard to believe.“$11,000 for hotel rooms – and we’re staying at Super 8’s?” he asked.The Shine Runners are among solar-car teams from 14 schools that will spent three days test running their vehicles, starting Saturday. On Tuesday, the cars set out on their journey in sequence, about five minutes between each, because they will be riding most of the time on the shoulders of Interstate 20 and I-10. In more dangerous, high-traffic areas, their support convoys will load the solar cars onto trailers for parts of the trip. In all, they expect their vehicles to be on the pavement for almost 600 miles of the trip. There’s not a finish line. The winner logs the most miles in the shortest time – criteria that will be monitored by a judge assigned to each contestant’s convoy.The event is organized by Solar Car Challenge, a non-profit that encourages student interest in engineering and science. Last year the Mansfield car placed sixth in the speedway contest, covering 178 laps, or 267 miles, during three racing days. It also won the award for engineering excellence.That 1,400-pound car, which cost $3,600 to build, attained a top speed of 37 mph and averaged 20 mph on the course.The revamped 1,080-pound car has reached 52 mph and will likely have an average running speed equal to the top speed of last year’s version.“We’ve calculated our max speed to be 64 mph,” Grigsby said, adding that it would only be possible on an extra-long straightaway than they have access to. “But during the race it’s not wise to go 64. That would use way too much battery power.”The Shine Runners are hoping to win, but certain they’re playing a significant part in the development of solar power.“I think that’s one of the purposes of this – to show people that it can be done,” Davis said. “If we can do it like this, imagine what advanced production companies could accomplish.”Simon Redondo, who will be a junior next school year, thought he was prepared for the solar project because as a middle school student in San Antonio he and team of two or three students built a solar car -- a 6-inch-long solar car.“I thought we’d make a similar car here – until I found out it was actually a full-size car,” Redondo said. “I was like, ‘Can we do that?’”As the car is powered by the sun, the project is powered by student energy and enthusiasm that cuts through the noise of the loud fans in the cavernous automotive garage. The teachers take little credit.“We’re dedicated, but the kids are the ones that are really driving this whole thing,” Goodson said. “We put in a lot of hours, but they’re the ones pushing us. We can’t get them to leave.”Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641
To follow the solar car team on their cross-country trip, visit their website at www.MISDShineRunners.com.