Racers ready to roll using sunshine to meet challenge

07/20/2014 4:45 PM

07/20/2014 8:14 PM

The crew knelt around the car, quickly rewiring some of the electrical fuses and covering exposed connections.

In just 24 hours, the race at Texas Motor Speedway would begin.

“We’re ready,” said Ethan Fricks, 17, a senior at All-Saints Episcopal School in Fort Worth. “Our car is in good shape. We’re ready to ride.”

All-Saints and 20 other high school teams from across the country scrambled Sunday to make final preparations for the 2014 Solar Car Challenge. The two-part competition begins Monday with races at the speedway, before teams depart on a two-day, 290-mile race from Fort Worth to Austin on Wednesday.

Race director Lehman Marks said the annual challenge aims to motivate students to explore careers in science, engineering and alternative energy.

“These kids are living engineering,” Marks said. “They are building solar cars from scratch, working as a team, solving problems. This is the best project-based learning in the country.”

Teams have spent the past several months, and — in some cases, years — building their solar cars. Each must be equipped with a roll cage, safety harness, horn, turn signals and a fire extinguisher, and they must meet certain size guidelines. Some cars can reach speeds of 50 to 60 mph, but the optimum speed to conserve energy is 30 to 34 mph.

No two cars look alike. Some have two wheels, others have as many as four. Types of batteries vary, as does the look of the frames.

Conditions, teamwork

Building challenges range from teamwork to logistics. Fricks, one of the All-Saints team captains, said communication is key for a 14-member team.

“Everyone has different ideas, different thoughts, and we have to work together to figure out a plan,” he said. “Communication is one of the hardest parts.”

The team from Ben Barber Career and Technology Academy in Mansfield built its car to resemble a Lakester. The racing cars, made using a modified aircraft drop tank (an auxiliary fuel tank), became popular after World War II. The team’s sleek blue car includes four solar panels and and four power sonic batteries.

Before racing, each car must pass a series of mechanical, electrical and driving tests to ensure safety. For Ben Barber, that meant adding one brake light.

Team Captain Eric Lucas said road conditions are important on a cross-country race.

“When you’re in a small car, a pothole becomes a lot more dangerous,” said Lucas, a senior at the academy. You have to watch out for every small deformation in the street.”

Drivers also must navigate traffic and other motorists.

“Some people enjoy seeing us and take pictures,” Lucas said. “Others don’t like that we’re holding up traffic, and they let us know.”

Nearby, a team from Liberty Christian College in Argyle was adding more aluminum support beams to its car to protect it against crashes. Last year, the team completed an eight-day race from Fort Worth to California.

Ian Brown, who graduated from Liberty Christian in the spring, said the team will watch the weather forecast closely.

“You just hope for sun,” Brown said. “If it’s cloudy and you’re running low on power, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.”

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