Running on Sunshine

07/21/2014 2:51 PM

07/21/2014 2:52 PM

It has a top “theoretical” speed of just 60 mph, but building the sun-powered three-wheeler that emerged last week from the Ben Barber Career Tech Academy auto shop has been a nearly yearlong thrill ride for a dozen students.

This week, the Shine Runners, including their two teachers, are getting to test their latest creation against other vehicles at the Solar Car Challenge, a four-day race that starts with laps at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Then the 19 teams, who came from as far away as New York and California, turn their solar vehicles and their gas-powered support convoys southward, where they will spend tonight in Waco and then complete the race late Thursday in Austin.

“It’s definitely exciting every year,” said Eric Lucas, one of the veterans, who will be a senior in the fall. “Last year, we did have the experience of driving all the way to California. But this year we’ll have twice the experience – going to Texas Motor Speedway and driving to Austin.”

The Shine Runners compete in the Classic division of teams with smaller budgets – 12 of the 19 teams -- but the race is not head-to-head. Each team is judged on how many miles it can log during the allotted time.

Last year the Shine Runners finished fifth – just high enough to get a trophy in the eight-day race to Los Angeles. But they also won the William Shih Award for technological achievement, beating 18 teams in all three divisions for the honor. The Runners also won the award in their rookie season two years ago.

“I love that honor, having the best engineered and designed car,” said engineering and robotics teacher Rob Goodson, who hopes for third in this race. “Some of the teams spent over $100,000 on cars that are not running as well as ours.”

The Shine Runners did have a faulty calculation that was revealed when they arrived at the Texas Motor Speedway this weekend and had the car weighed for the first time. They had estimated their new car’s weight at 750 pounds, about 280 pounds less than the weight of last year’s refurbished car, which had them estimating a speed of 70 mph and a cruising average of about 50 mph.

But the speedway scales revealed a much chunkier 1,000 lbs., just 30 pounds lighter than last year’s vehicle, Goodson said Monday morning, moments after the first leg of the race started. That meant their pre-race calculation of a 70 mph top speed was too optimistic.

“Really now what I’m thinking our top speed is going to be 58 to 60,” Goodson said. “Right now we’re out there pulling about 40 consistently.”

But the car certainly is sleeker looking. It’s their first time to build a car chassis from scratch, after building around an existing chassis the first year and then rebuilding that car last year.

They chose to emulate the aerodynamic shape of the land rockets that burned trails on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah after World War II. The solar panel, which rides atop the car like an oversized ping-pong table, is smaller than last year’s but slightly more powerful.

“The biggest challenge was building a new frame and designing it all ourselves,” said Sawyer Stuart, who graduated this year and will be a UT-Arlington freshman majoring in engineering. “I think the biggest challenge was just making sure that everything fit together.”

Work on the design started in August, and then the hammering and welding got under way. The project has relied completely on volunteer student and teacher labor. It’s considered an extracurricular activity, with no class credit.

After-school work turned into full days of summer work, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Goodson said five of his 12 students join him as charter members of Shine Runners, and two other students are in their second year of volunteerism. This year, welding teacher Alex Higgins joined the group.

“These kids are giving up their free time to do this,” Goodson said. “This is not mandatory by any means.”

The first year, they built their car at a cost of about $3,600. It had a top speed of 36.5 mph but averaged about 20 mph during that four-day race, all at the motor speedway, where the car finished with 178 laps, or 267 miles.

The new, third-year version cost $10,000 to build. But the project has steadily recruited more sponsors, including the Mansfield school district, which didn’t offer funding the first year but followed up with at least $20,000 in the second and third years.

“I think they were willing to kick in because they realized what a great experience it was for the kids,” said Ben Barber Principal Catherine Hudgins, who likes the hands-on, freestyle learning the students get in the program.

“I’m so proud of these guys,” she said. “I think the biggest thing about the kids that are involved with this is the real-world applications, and the fact there’s really no structure to their leanring. They’re coming up with the designs and making it happen. It’s not what you would find in a classroom.”

The students all are proponents of solar energy, optimistic it will quickly become a cheaper and dominant alternative energy source.

“That’s kind of what we’re showing – how inexpensive it is,” Lucas said. “If a bunch of high school kids can build a car that races off of solar energy, then it can work for houses.”

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