Solar Car Racing Competition Heats Up

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 27, 2004

Pick your vehicle—stock car, motorcycle, pickup truck, riding lawn mower—and competitors in the United States race them. So, too, the solar-powered car.

Robert Becho is a member of the solar-powered car racing team at the University of Missouri, Rolla. His crew's sleek, low-slung vehicle is covered with cells that convert sunlight to electricity and power the vehicle. (The world's fastest solar racer, the Netherlands-based Nuna 2, has topped out at 105 miles an hour/170 kilometers an hour.)

Competitions take place on public roads. As a result, "we become a rolling science project," said Becho, a computer and engineering student. He notes that red lights often spur impromptu question-and-answer sessions with drivers of regular cars.

"In NASCAR you might know the drivers, but [in solar racing] the car is the star," said Dan Eberle, president of the Freeman, Missouri-based New Resources Group. The company organizes solar car racing events, including the American Solar Challenge. The biannual, cross-country race—the world's longest solar car race— serves as a kind of solar-car Super Bowl.

The competition pits about two dozen college-based teams on a roughly 2,200-mile (3,500-kilometer) race from Chicago, Illinois, to Claremont, California. The cars compete from sunup to sundown.

The University of Missouri-Rolla team won the 2003 race, crossing the finish line in 51 hours, 47 minutes. Traffic and stoplights en route dropped the team's average speed to 43.3 miles an hour (70 kilometers an hour).

While the competition is fierce, participants say a spirit of friendly rivalry prevails. "Everybody wants to win, but there's no shortage of friendship and camaraderie," Robert Becho said. "We all know about long nights in the shop."

During races, support vehicles follow the solar-powered cars to ensure other drivers spot the low-slung vehicles.

The hobby still carries risk. Last month University of Toronto student Andrew Frow died in a two-car crash on a highway near Kitchener, Ontario, while driving his team's Blue Sky Solar Racing car. (Frow was not competing at the time but was on a ten-day solar car tour.)

"We've always known it was dangerous," Eberle said. "These solar cars are experimental vehicles. Although we do the best that we can with the structure, braking, and handling, the fact is that bad stuff can happen."

Rigorous safety requirements, like roll bars and cages, have long been in place for solar racers. However, Eberle said Frow's death has spurred the solar-car racing community to further improve safety.

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