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The American Solar Challenge is an endurance event, taking teams on a cross-country voyage covering over 1700 miles on US public highways. The track-based Formula Sun Grand Prix (FSGP), as in previous years, will precede the endurance race and serve as a qualifier for starting placement in the ASC.
The FSGP will take place in Hastings Nebraska, at Motorsports Park Hastings (MPH) “the Midwest’s premier road course.” After 3 days on inspections referred to as “scrutineering,” the track race will begin. The goal of this race is not necessarily to run the fastest laps but to run the most laps on as little energy as possible. Teams are scored based on the efficiency of their car, as well as the practicality of their vehicle. Once the 3-day event is complete, participating teams will be judged and scored, and begin to prepare for the 2nd stage of the competition, the ASC.
The ASC will take us from Omaha, Nebraska all the way to Bend, Oregon, over 8 days of competitive long-distance racing. Just as in the FSGP, teams are scored based on the efficiency and practicality of their car. Unlike the FSGP, however, we won’t have constant access to a garage, facilities, or restrooms (!) during the race days -- we’ll be limited by what we can bring along with us in our support caravan and race trailer (and we’ll just have to hold it, yes, really!). The race route will take us across deserts, prairies, through the Rocky Mountain ranges, and across some of the most beautiful landscapes our country has to offer, before the Oregon finish.
For these races, we’ve moved on from our first car, Apperion, and designed & built a new cruiser-class vehicle, ROSE (Racing on Solar Energy). For more on ROSE, click here!
After yesterday’s successes, we are optimistic about today. We expect to get good sun throughout the day, and don’t have far to go before the next stage stop in Lander, Wyoming. This will be a shorter post, which is generally a good thing because it means nothing’s gone wrong.
This morning we have Lucas Tax back in the driver seat with Chase Reynolds, our photographer riding along in the passenger seat. I can’t wait to see the photos he takes because he has been killing it with his shots so far. We’ve had no trouble navigating the grassy desert plains, spotted by antelope, cattle, and prairie dogs.
We got to the Lander stage stop at around 12:45. After checking in with the officials and setting up our tent, a few of us grabbed some very tasty sandwiches at Breadboard, a sub shop across the street from the high school where the stage stop is.
The most recent changes to the regulations, which came on July 1st, made the penalties for trailering at any time extremely severe. This makes sense to discourage teams from trailering up steep hills, etc. without penalty. Unfortunately this rule has done a lot of damage to our efficiency score due to our trailering on day 2 which he had no choice but to do. Had we not arrived to the stage stop on time we’d have effectively been out of the race entirely. As outlined by the regulations, we’ve got 53 hours to finish the race from start to finish to evade penalties.
We’ve got 62 hours to finish, in total, or we face getting a 0 on our efficiency score. Given our current pace, we’ve got to make swift westward moves in order to make it to Bend in time. I understand this may not be 100% clear, the equations for scoring are not so simple, but the basics are that we need to make it within 62 hours or we’ll suffer, so we are doing what we can to make it within that time window.
On the bright side, we made such great time to the stage stop today that we earned ourselves a stage winner pin. I think they look pretty darn good on our new ROSE hats. The team wants more of them and so do I.
Today has finally been proof that our car is capable of much more than we’ve been getting out of it so far. We have not had any major issues on any fronts. It’s now 2 o’clock and we have already traveled 210 miles but here’s the best part: we still have ~40% state of charge left, and the sun was generous enough to show itself today. Not only have we already broken our record for distance traveled on a single charge, we aren’t even close to being out of batteries. Team Sunergy is tearing through Wyoming -- we’re now only a few miles away from Casper, WY where the next checkpoint awaits. Rough estimates gauge that we could go up to 300 miles in conditions like these, even more with better sun & roads.
The skies have granted us smooth sailing so far, only briefly getting turned around in Casper which was tricky to navigate due to heavy traffic. We made it through the busy downtown streets and pulled into the checkpoint, which is the gorgeous National Historic Trails Interpretive Center that overlooks the nearby mountain ranges surrounding the city. As stressful and draining as this race is, views like these give us some time to take it all in and enjoy a little window of peace.
While we are stopped at the checkpoint, someone looks to the sky and points out ominous rain clouds on each side of the road we are planning to go down in just a few minutes. Weather changes quickly out here on the plains. We decide to go as far as we can because there may be an opportunity to “thread the needle” as Dan put it and make it through them unscathed, but the window is closing quickly. Winds are picking up and are pulling the driver’s side car door away from the chassis, which worried us in the chase van -- the gap was almost a foot wide at one point and were afraid it would snap the door clean in half. Before we could stop to do anything however, we have to pull over for a different reason.
Just 15 miles up the road, the winds shift and suddenly there is a dense column of water coming directly our way with no delay. Without hesitation we pull the convoy over, pull up the truck and trailer, and swiftly load the car up. The timing was impeccable, just as the scout car informs us chunks of hail are participating in this storm, we finish packing the trailer and get to moving. Hail would certainly damage the solar cells and we are not comfortable taking any chances with them. Though loading the car can be a bit of a time sink because of the amount of cargo that has to be shifted between vehicles, this was by far the fastest load-up I’ve seen. Seems like Team Sunergy is fueled by urgency and we live off the pressure.
We trailer back to the hotel, and Dan makes the executive decision to call it for the day. We have only an hour of allowable driving time left, and given the cloud cover it seems wall-charging will be necessary tonight so there’s no point in going any further. On the way home we spot some areas untouched by the storms and briefly consider “racing the sun” to try and charge there in order to boost our efficiency score. We decided against this due to risk, surely by the time we arrived the clouds will have moved. It’s unfortunate that we won’t be able to find out just how much further we could’ve gone with today’s conditions, nevertheless we are very proud of the progress we were able to make and already gearing up to make bigger moves tomorrow.
We’ll be able to pick up where we left off tomorrow, and slightly earlier than normal because of our early exit. There’s no reason to take needless risks. Solar racing is an intensive exercise in both risk management and emergency preparedness. We need to be ready not only for things we can control to go wrong, but we must also be prepared against external threats like storms, road hazards, and other acts of God. Today we reinforced those principles, went home, and prepared for an early start tomorrow morning.
Since we made it to the checkpoint on time yesterday, we no longer have a provisional qualification, and we are once again under the same restrictions as everyone else. We are thrilled about this. The team has proven our worth; we now have one less thing to worry about.
Early in the morning we found a good spot to pull over and work on the car before the race day begins. By now we’re certain our arrays are fully operational, and we still believe we should be getting more of our battery pack than what we’ve seen so far, so much of our time has gone into testing all of the wiring in the car, analyzing potential weight-saving opportunities, and brainstorming ways to improve the aerodynamics of the car.
The morning and early afternoon went smoothly. Wyatt stayed well on pace to arrive at the stage stop in time, and our only concern was our batteries running out of juice. All we could do is go on until they would take us no further.
Clouds covered the skies for most of the afternoon, which hurt the distance we were able to travel before having to trailer the car and take it to the stage stop. We have to arrive at stage stops by a certain time, usually 8PM in order to avoid heavy penalties, and this goes for all teams. We made it with plenty of time to spare, arriving just after 6PM.
We made it to about 100 miles away from Gering before our BPS tripped again, indicating we’d run out of juice. This time was less of a surprise, as we were able to install a form of telemetry system that allowed us to read pack voltage occasionally. With this system in place we had our electrical specialists calculating estimated State of Charge (SOC) figures which are most useful for predicting when our batteries will run out of juice. Our electrical guys were able to predict this BPS trip within a 5 mile margin, which considering the rough numbers they had access to, is very respectable.
Having to trailer to a stage stop means we won’t be getting any points on the scoreboard for today, but that’s alright; we made excellent progress today and our car is continuously improving its range. Our distance before running out of batteries this time was 180 miles, the most we have gotten so far. I’ve been told to expect that number to get significantly larger tomorrow as we have identified more inefficiencies, both mechanical and electrical, which will be mitigated tonight. This is very, very good news for us. We just have to wait and see just how much better ROSE will do, but the outlook is positive.
Come night time our mechanical team spent some time adding foam seals to the doors to reduce drag and wind noise in the cabin, while mechanical expert James Furr, worked on adjusting the steering to be more forgiving on the drivers on the open road. The electrical team made adjustments to the battery pack and wiring in the car, preventing unnecessary power drains which should help our battery maintain its charge on the road.
The stage stop was at Scotts Bluff in Gering, NE. Upon arriving, the team took some time to relax and walk around, speaking with the other teams and taking a short hike up the bluff. The scenery was incredible, Nebraska is so flat that by gaining just a small amount of elevation you can see tens of miles away. It helped give us some perspective on just how daunting of a task this solar challenge is.
The team got up at 5AM in order to make it to the track with plenty of time to get ROSE and her support convoy ready for her first day of cross-country racing. Our support vehicles (the scout car, lead and chase vans, and truck & trailer) have been organized to make sure ROSE has everything she needs, that our team members are where they need to be in relation to the car, and that we aren’t missing any tools or materials in case we have to make any roadside repairs. This is not unlikely considering this is our first real test of ROSE on public roads -- things are bound to go wrong sooner or later.
We have a strong start nevertheless. At 8AM on the dot, the challenger class cars begin to leave the Lewis & Clark Landing and embark on this voyage across the country. Within 20 minutes, ROSE makes her own departure, with Wyatt at the wheel and Mike Montalvo as his co-pilot. This is it, there’s no going back now.
Our Chase & Lead vans seamlessly merge around the solar car, and we are off. I was in the race trailer, so I wasn’t able to be there for much of what went on, but I could hear everything over the radios and made sure to get as many details as I could whenever possible. At first, we were actually having a pretty good kind of problem: our array was charging our batteries at a rate faster than we could use and the cells couldn’t store any more charge. Dan told Wyatt to speed up over the radio in order to use up more power in order to protect the battery cells, and the issue resolved itself.
We’d have loved to be able to do more testing before coming to this race, but given our extremely aggressive build timeline of 8 months from beginning design to racing at the FSGP, coming this far is a feat in itself. At the FSGP, we’ve already encountered issues with our array charging and the BPS which have occasionally popped back up but have not yet indicated to be severe. Public highways are a completely different environment from a smooth, well-maintained race track, and to top it all off only one of our drivers has any experience road-racing a solar car. To quote Dan: “Every time, it’s still amazing that we’ve made it this far.”
Wyatt begins having power issues within the first couple hours of driving. Somewhere around noon the team pulls over to troubleshoot and see if there’s anything they can see immediately wrong with the car, after an hour of work the car is running well enough to make the checkpoint for the day which is the main goal. If you remember from before, we can’t trailer to get there at all and we can’t get there after 3:30. If either happens we’re out of the race, but we are still on good pace to get there in time.
We made it to the checkpoint at 3:15, as you know we like to cut things close over here on Team Sunergy. Once the team had eaten, gotten water, and continued working on electrical systems, we headed off toward the first stage stop in Gering, NE.
Around this point our brake lights come on and don’t go off, they’re stuck on. Quick reaction times by Hunter and Andrew, resident electrical gurus, corrected the BLATS board and we were off without a significant time loss.
In an unfortunate series of events, ROSE was passed by a semi-truck at the same time the pavement changed. This combination of unexpected forces forced ROSE off the road. Kali had just gotten in to take over for Wyatt at the checkpoint. She was at the wheel at the time with no passenger. Everyone was okay, and the car suffered no damage, but as you can imagine it was a scary situation to witness and Kali was pretty shaken up. We put Wyatt back in the car to let Kali recover and settle down as we got back on the road.
Wyatt ran the rest of the day, until we came to a stop near a small town by the name of Raveena. We found a cozy little motel with a friendly owner who made sure we had everything we needed before we all crashed and went to bed. Us non-vegetarians ate large quantities of gas station fried chicken for dinner which was probably the most filling meal we’ve had so far if only because of how hungry we are due to the constant mental and physical strain of the race. These are definitely not 2000 calorie days.
The lodging was excellent, especially compared to the alternative which was camping out wherever we found a spot. Thank you to Kali for finding this place. We slept like babies.
Public Day is where all the teams competing bring their cars out and show them off to anyone who comes around. This year the event was held at the Lewis & Clark Landing in Omaha.
We received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the crowd. Just about everyone seemed to agree that ROSE is the best looking car at the event. We took some time to go around to all of the other teams and see their cars. It’s always interesting to see how others tackle the same problems we face with their own ideas and resources. Cody Waters, our former Mechanical Director, had the excellent idea of embedding a bluetooth speaker to play some tunes from within the car (as if ROSE needed any more reason to be the center of attention).
Lunch consisted of some delicious sandwiches picked up last-minute from Pickleman’s, shout out to them for accepting our ludicrous order of 18 sandwiches with zero notice in advance. They made quick work of getting us fed and I know we were all more than satisfied with the food.
Upon looking the weather as we are very used to doing by now, we saw that heavy rainfall was expected. In fact, a flood warning was issued from that afternoon to 10 AM to the following morning. We packed our car up in the trailer for the storm; we want to do more to waterproof it before letting it sit in the rain, even though it should hold up just fine as it is. It only ended up raining for an hour or two, but man did it come down hard when it did. Once the sun came back out, we unpacked, and were greeted by even larger crowds.
We had some National Parks Service rangers come over and ask for a picture of them in the car, we gladly obliged.
It was around this time that our Chancellor Sheri Everts came around to visit. We had a blast showing her around the car, giving her one of our official race polos, and sharing a delicious meal of Nebraskan favorites including Valentino’s pizza, Runzas (criminally tasty bite-size sandwiches), salad, and cinnamon sticks graciously provided by the Chancellor herself. The Chancellor was thrilled to see our ROSE in full bloom, race-ready and cleared for cross-country racing. She stayed around to ask all the questions we could answer about the car.
We had a few final safety checks to do, parallel parking and backing into a parking spot, which the officials ran in a side lot nearby. Chancellor Everts hung around to keep us company and watch Dan’s last ride in a Team Sunergy solar car. I’m convinced she’s our #1 fan, and I know the team is extremely grateful for her support during this race and over the years. We love you Chancellor Everts!
Finally, a full day of racing for Team Sunergy.
As of Thursday morning, we were well-positioned to qualify all of our drivers for the American Solar Challenge, all we had left do was perform. We’d already gotten Wyatt qualified, and Lucas Tax was well on his way. He only needed 9 more laps around the track to be cleared for the track.
Instead of opting to charge on sun power with the rest of cars, which would have served to boost our efficiency score, we charged from the wall on Wednesday night. We didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances and our efficiency score is not a factor in qualification. Qualifying for the ASC was the primary objective, the scoring and ranking was secondary. We are generally very competitive no matter the situation but these were exigent circumstances that called for undivided attention to what mattered most, which was securing our spot in the ASC.
We started the day with Lucas in the driver’s seat to allow him to finish his 9 remaining qualification laps, with Andrew Pobrica as his co-pilot. After taking 8 laps, I hear Lucas cut in over the radio to the race strategy team:
“This is Lucas to race strategy. Requesting permission to take a hot lap.”
After a suspenseful pause, Dan Blakeley (Chief Race Strategist, soon-to-be former Project Director, and the founder of our team) crackles back over the channel:
A wave of adrenaline shot through the team’s collective nervous system; chills shot down my spine in the timing booth. We’ve yet to run any real hot laps, we are dead-set on qualifying for the ASC no matter how it makes us look on the scoreboard. Hot laps are less efficient and more risky than conservative driving. At the same time it’s important to know what our car can do if we ever need to call on that power. Lucas proceeded to put down what was at the time the fastest lap of the day, officially recorded at just under 2m57s.
Of course, this pace wasn’t a sustainable one; we still had more drivers to qualify and a long day of racing ahead of us so we didn’t run another hot lap for the rest of the day for the sake of our tires, batteries, and drivers. Nevertheless it was thrilling to see ROSE open up and give us a short-lived tease of what she can do when we need her to. I’ve no doubt we could’ve closed in on the overall fastest lap of ~2:30 given the opportunity.
Kali Smith took the wheel on lap 11, with Lucas in the passenger seat. Kali did an excellent job of putting up consistent numbers, delivering on the target times asked of her within a slim margin, and quickly making adjustments as needed. She kept us right where we wanted to be in terms of efficiency and pace, great job on her part — she performed exactly as we needed her to. I wish we could have seen her put more miles on the car, but we still have one more driver to qualify.
Once she had her laps in and was qualified, we put our most experienced solar car driver James Furr in the car. All of our drivers have proven that they are capable of doing what is needed, be it fast laps or efficient ones. James took consistency to a new level. He put out several consecutive identical lap times which is impressive in its own regard, rarely straying more than a few seconds from the target time given by Dan. As I told him when he got out of the car, he displayed a level of control over ROSE that gives the impression robot is doing the driving, not a human. James “the Machine” Furr took over for as much of the rest of the race as Dan would let him, and took us from 37 to 75 laps without a hiccup.
Lap 76 is where things took a turn for the worse. About halfway around the 76th lap, the Battery Protection System (BPS) shuts down the car due to low voltage. In layman’s terms, we ran out of juice; our batteries have been fully drained and using them any further could damage the cells. What this means for us is we have to charge them back up, at least partially, before continuing.
Once our car was towed in, the pit crew executed a fast tire change and driver swap while the electrical team diagnosed the electrical box to find out what caused the faster-than-expected battery drain. We found that vibrations had shaken a ground wire for the arrays loose, meaning at some point during the day we’d lost all charging from the sun. The wire was reattached and we put Wyatt back behind the wheel. We tried to charge but the sun was low and clouds were rolling in. Unfortunately, the battery was already so low, after getting maybe 1/4 of the way around his 2nd lap he was reduced to nothing more than solar power.
We are running out of time, battery power, and now there’s little sun to help us along. Wyatt could be seen inching along the track at an unrelenting 2 miles per hour. This happened to another team as well, and at around the same place on the track. It was both humorous and inspiring to see the turtle race ongoing between the two cars crawling along, never giving up in the face of unfavorable conditions and laps that likely wouldn’t be counted.
The race day ended as Wyatt approached the final turn before the final straightaway, but there’s no way he’ll make it in time to add another lap to our count. It didn’t matter either way. We wouldn’t be making the 96 laps needed to qualify for the ASC. We were all heartbroken, frustrated, and exhausted. There is always a silver lining, however. In the chaos that was the final hours of the race, Team Sunergy had slid past Waterloo on the scoreboard and secured a 3rd place finish! We had a podium spot!
After speaking with the officials, we received indication that we may still have a shot at a provisional qualification. Without knowing how the officials make these decisions, I believe it may be since, given our circumstances, we’d proven ourselves as both capable and competitive even though we’d missed the mark. A provisional qualification would entail penalties and/or extra requirements we had to meet to remain a part of the race.
We took the podium pictures on the track along with Minnesota who finished first place, and Onda Solaré from Italy who placed 2nd. Finally, after a painfully long wait, we were given a provisional qualification, with around an hour and a half of penalties for missing the lap count (for a total of almost 3 hours to be added to our time when we arrive to Bend, the other 1.5 hours due to a minor but unchangeable mechanical design flaw that would have to wait for us to get back to Boone for us to fix). We were also given a requirement that if we don’t make it to the first checkpoint by 3:30 PM, we are out of the race. Additionally, if we have to trailer the car for any amount of time on the way to the first checkpoint, we are out of the race.
We accepted these provisions, packed up our garage, and headed to Omaha for the night to get some much-needed rest. We may not have qualified the way we wanted to, but at this point we are all just glad we can keep racing. At the end of the day that’s what this is all about: sustainable, intense, passionate solar racing at the highest level we can push ourselves to, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The show goes on for Appalachian State.
The midnight crew consisting of Dan, Austin, Cody, Andrew, Hunter, and I stayed up all night finishing up preparations for dynamics, as we’ve realized a few changes need to be made to the steering & suspension, and those who weren’t around needed the rest. We’ve also had to re-do much of the wiring that goes through the cabin of the car and none of the BLATS (Brake Lights And Turn Signals) are working.
I would call this the final push if we weren’t all back doing more of the same type of finishing touches the next night (the time of writing this).
Fortunately, by the time the rest of the team had started getting breakfast, we had a significantly tighter steering rack and had refined the alignment and camber of the wheels. Not only will this result in a more efficient drive, we will go through tires at a much slower rate. This will save us time on the track by reducing the need for tire changes, while also giving the drivers better control over the car in corners.
We were granted an early morning Dynamics scrutineering window which we took full advantage of, finishing up the track-based components by 8:30 AM. These had been the tests to worry about, wet-braking and slalom, and now we are past them. As soon as we can get officials to check off our remaining yellows, which we addressed overnight, we are cleared for entry on pit lane.
We do just that, and at exactly 1:45:17 PM (accuracy provided by yours truly, the official race timer for our team) we departed from our pit and started putting laps on the track with our rising Engineering Director Wyatt Bailey taking the wheel and Business Director Kali Smith in the passenger seat. After taking a lap to get acquainted with his new surroundings, Wyatt started hitting it harder getting down to a best lap time of 3m 36s, which is an excellent pace for the course, and I’m sure he could go faster if he wasn’t concerned about tire wear.
Included in the number of laps needed to qualify the car for the race (96 in one day or 143 over two consecutive days), each driver needs 24 laps on the track to individually qualify for entry in the ASC. As soon as Wyatt hit his 24, we swapped him out for electrical specialist Lucas Tax, and Kali for mechanical specialist James Furr. As instructed, Lucas took a more conservative approach to reduce the stress we’re putting on the car pre-ASC.
Wyatt did a killer job on the track, putting down excellent lap times beating many strong single-occupant teams’ average lap times with a passenger next to him. Unfortunately, he handed Lucas a car with batteries well on their way to 45°C. Lucas, even with his conservative approach, hit our thermal limits three times before the end of today’s racing at 5PM, two of them in the same lap. The only thing that happens when we hit 45°C is the car has to stop, restart, and be driven more carefully, but still, this doesn’t bode too well for driving across the deserts of Wyoming if (*when) we make it to the ASC, so we will have to rethink the way we cool our battery pack. There are many possible solutions, we’ve just got to decide on the right ones and put them in place. For now we will at least adjust our driving strategy.
We put 39 laps down on the track today, and Wyatt is fully qualified for entry in the ASC. We’ll be making changes to try to keep the battery box cool, updates will come in the following blog post. Our team roll-call chant for today was “What’s cooler than cool? ICE COLD.”
This morning, after working through the night, the team finally heard the warm electric hum of the motor and witnessed the first breaths of ROSE coming to life. After being graced with the genius of Sam, the team was able to engineer ways around the errors in the PCB, and everything is running as expected. Though our work is far from over, we’ve been hit with a new wave of motivation at the sight of a car we don’t have to push around any more.
Drivers were briefed on the rules of the road for the race at 8AM. Immediately after, the group photos of all the teams on the straightaway of the track were taken. Troy Tuttle from University Communications, registered as the official race photographer, swiftly took control of the chaotic mass of solar vehicles lined up on the track.
We get the car back to the garage to finish tuning the Battery Protection System (BPS) for inspection. After a few hours we head to the scrutineering station to begin the lengthy process of verifying that the car will isolate the battery pack in any undesirable conditions such as excess battery pack heat, too much power draw, power surges, and low battery voltage. As the sun completed its dramatic exit for the day around 10PM, we received a yellow mark (which indicates the system needs revision but the car can proceed with Dynamics testing) for our BPS. We’re very close to a green, it will just take one last session of optimization and we’re that much closer to hitting the track.
Of course, we need a green in all categories to be cleared for racing, but yellow is all we need to move forward with dynamics testing which is our main bottleneck at the moment. The BPS fix won’t take long, we just need to get our slalom and brake test out of the way as soon as possible and the rest will just be finishing touches; this is a positive outcome for us. All that is left for us is Dynamics and the last minor fixes that will turn our few remaining yellows into greens. With just a little luck we’ll be on the track tomorrow afternoon.
First thing in the morning at 7AM, we sent the dynamic duo, John and Brandon, on a road trip to acquire regulation compliant roll bar padding from Lincoln. This is the last piece we need to clear the puzzle of Mechanical scrutineering. All that’s left is Electrical, Lights & Vision, BPS, and of course the now infamous Dynamics testing. We are well on track to satisfy our scrutineering requirements, save for Dynamics, by the end of tomorrow.
John and Brandon made it to Speedway Motors in Lincoln, NE in record time and made quick work of getting the padding. A big shout-out to Gary for helping us out and even giving the two some free hats! I’m jealous! By 10:30 the duo is back with our padding, which is a relief for everyone. First crisis averted.
As of noon today, only three teams have been cleared for racing: Poly Montreal, ETS, and Minnesota. A few more teams are expected to finish by the end of the day -- we expect there to be between 8-12 teams at the starting line tomorrow, hopefully more. A lot of teams are struggling with the slalom and brake test, but with enough tries they should continue to trickle through.
As for our own problems, we’re down to just electrical. We have finished all of the work we expected to have to do on the car, but we have one problem: it won’t turn on. We’ve checked all the wiring, all the connectors, the batteries, the deepest corners of our willpower, everything.
Race officials have stopped by our garage a few times now. They are rooting for us and we are cautiously optimistic that they will find some way to help us out by allowing extended dynamics scrutineering after race-hours. The atmosphere is tense but the outlook is decidedly optimistic. Everyone wants to see ROSE on the track. John, one of the race officials and former faculty advisor of Principia College’s solar team along with our new best friend Sam helping us reprogram the circuit boards.
“Best friend” is an understatement. Sam is a former member of Stanford’s solar vehicle team who has come to the race to observe and, if needed, help out any teams having trouble (particularly with electrical problems). He’s here because he wants to see everyone succeed. It’s now just past 10 PM and our guardian angels Sam & John are still here continuing to troubleshoot the electrical systems. I hear them discussing program states, inputs, outputs, and an excess of electrical jargon I couldn’t possibly pretend to understand with Dan, Hunter, Lucas, Andrew, and the rest of the electrical team whenever they are awake.
As of 2 AM, Sam & the electrical gang are still downstairs with a pot of freshly brewed coffee. He is pulling through for us in a way we can’t ever thank him enough for. I promised Dan I’d build him a written shrine, this is it. Sam is a golden god. We’ve had a lot of teams help us out, and we are extremely grateful for everything we’ve received from them all, but Sam has gone miles above and beyond in helping us fix our electrical issues. As it turns out, several connections on our PCB (the main printed circuit board containing the equivalents of the brain and nervous system of the car) are either backwards or otherwise improperly configured. These issues will take hours of clever engineering and programming skills to resolve.
The dream team is assembled, all we can do is wait. Everyone not involved is aching for a way to help, but this is one for the specialists and the most we can do is stay out of their way. I’m out of nails to bite, but I’m staying up as long as I can in case any major breakthroughs occur, the details are always more difficult to come by if you weren’t there at the time.
We have reason to believe we’ll be granted an opportunity to complete dynamics scrutineering at some point, and we are on track to clean up all the yellow marks we’ve received so far. Hopefully we wake up to some good news in the morning, because the volatile moods are creeping back in and we won’t make it out of here with our sanity if not.
Today was much like yesterday, but with fewer unexpected problems. As usual, those who had slept adequately woke up at 6:30 for breakfast & some morning stretches before heading out to the daily race meeting at 8AM. Once we’d gotten our daily updates, we headed back to the garage to continue working on the car.
The electrical team continued to work on the electrical and battery boxes in preparation for scrutineering. We got the Battery Protection System (BPS) working with the help of one of the Canadian teams, ETS. Most of the team’s resources are being directed toward finishing wiring & soldering everything together for the car. By the end of the day we were able to get all of the wiring done on the car, and finished assembling the high-voltage connectors that link the main computer with the batteries and the motor controllers.
We had some minor revisions to make in order to tighten the steering up, which is being reassembled by James as I type this, and should be done by the end of the night. Dan & Andrew have spent many hours finishing up the code that runs on the main computer controlling the car, so tomorrow morning we will complete final assembly and continue testing start-up procedures and making sure all systems are operating as expected.
Huge shoutouts to teams CalSol, ETS, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illini for their help over the past few days, we wouldn’t be where we are without their contributions. The spirit of everyone wanting to see each other succeed is inspirational and really sets this community apart from any other competitive environment I’ve found myself in. Job well done to Poly Montreal and ETS for passing scrutineering and being cleared for racing! We hope to see more teams join them soon.
I assure you, these logs will get more interesting as race-time approaches. There’s not too much to report on until the car has passed scrutineering -- I will keep you all updated!
Morning - As of last night, our car is mechanically ready for inspection. Work is never truly done on a solar car, but as far as the critical pieces needed to move forward in order to proceed with scrutineering and qualifying, everything has been taken care of with a few minor exceptions.
Afternoon - Inspections went relatively well. We received marks high enough to allow us to proceed with scrutineering in all except one category, body & sizing. As it turns out, the padding we chose to use to pad the roll cage is not SFI certified, and therefore not compatible with the race regulations. Even though the SFI compatible padding is nearly if not identical to the padding we have, the only way to move forward is to find some compliant padding.
We spent the afternoon coming up with potential ways of acquiring SFI certified roll bar padding, including asking every team at the track, and even the track owner. As it turns out, we’re not the only team who had this issue, as just about everyone we asked told us we were the 3rd, 4th, or 5th team to ask them for the same thing. We were able to get a 3 foot long piece of padding from Team Illini in exchange for a t-shirt, but we need more like 12 feet. The plan is to make a trip to Omaha at 8AM on monday morning to get padding.
The electrical team is hard at work wiring up the numerous dashboard screens and interfaces, power switches, brake lights & turns signals, and preparing the battery box for inspection which is scheduled for tomorrow. This is easier said than done, but strong progress is being made. Teams who are further along in the scrutineering process are stepping up to help us out and we could not thank them more for their contributions. In spite of the competitive nature of this event, everyone wants to see all the cars hit the track, especially the new cruiser-class cars.
During a short period of downtime we practiced emergency drills for the ASC in case something goes wrong on the road. We have nailed down procedures for pulling over, coning off the caravan, flagging down traffic, and bringing out equipment like fire extinguishers and spare tires to be prepared in any event something goes wrong. From a flat tire to a (knock on wood) fire and everything in between, we are as prepared as we can be for any scenario.
Today is the first day of “scrutineering”, the rigorous inspection process all teams and racecars must pass in order to qualify for and enter the race. Since there are so many teams entered in this race, the pressure is on to make sure we are able to pass all of our inspections on the first try. Last year, we arrived to the FSGP with a car that had already passed scrutineering in 2016. This meant we had plenty of time before the race to optimize and test Apperion to be sure it was race-ready from the get-go, and was part of the reason we were able to fly through scrutineering as quickly as we did.
This year will be more of a challenge. We are arriving with a car that has seen minimal testing and still needs work to be considered fully ready to race.
We are all taking any naps we can squeeze into our day, but time for sleep is cut short by an unfortunate new requirement that all dynamics scrutineering must be completed before the race begins. In the past, scrutineering can be completed at any time, even during the last day of racing, if necessary. This time around, the only area where the brake test and slalom trial can be run is on the race track. This means these tests won’t be possible once the race begins. While we aim to be as competitive as possible in both the FSGP and ASC, our primary focus is to qualify for and enter the ASC at all costs, even if that takes away from our performance in the FSGP. In short, a new deadline has appeared and it is not making our lives easier. We need to work around the clock to ensure we can be cleared for entry into the FSGP so we can put enough laps on the track with each driver to qualify for the ASC.
At this point the red bulls are disappearing at an alarming rate. We had a delicious dinner of burritos organized by our team nutritionist Bree, and immediately after we got straight to work outlining everything we need to do to make sure this car is ready to be scrutinized by the race officials over the next few days. Dan established a much-needed lights-out time of 2AM to force us to go to bed and get a “reasonable” 4 hours of sleep. Once everyone had their tasks assigned and a ‘fast-track to scrutineering’ gameplan was assembled, we got straight back to it and worked non-stop until lights-out.
The flying travel group meets up at RDU at 4AM. As you’d expect, we are all exhausted, cranky, and ready for sleep. Upon waking up in Detroit, we make a swift transfer to our connecting flight and we are finally on our way to Omaha. We probably spoke about 10 words to each other collectively between RDU and Omaha. We split into two groups at the Omaha airport. Dan, Johnny and I head into town to pick up a generator and some lunch before heading to the track. We had some delicious burgers at Bronco’s (Omaha’s best in 2017 and 2018!), and we were on our way.
The team is still finishing up the final touches on the car before inspections begin. The team is still finishing up work on the car before inspections begin. Final assembly is complicated because there are many components that depend others before they can be installed, so everything needs to be done in a certain order with extreme care to make sure nothing is overlooked.
Moods are becoming noticeably more volatile. This is definitely due to the lack of sleep and the strenuous, unending physical and mental workload of preparing for and competing in a solar car race. In spite of these demands and mounting stress, in true Appalachian fashion the general atmosphere among the team is one of excitement and positivity.
In contrast to the single convoy approach we took in getting to the Formula Sun Grand Prix 2017, this year we have two groups traveling separately to the race. The first group left early on July 3rd, bringing with them the scout car, chase & lead vans for the race convoy (the spaceships, as we refer to them), and of course the world-famous race trailer. The second group is to leave in the early morning hours of July 5th from RDU airport, and fly into Omaha that day, before meeting up with the rest of the team at the race track.
Upon completing the voyage across the endless sea of corn fields that is the American Heartland, the team arrived to Motorsports Park Hastings (MPH) safely and without a hiccup on the 4th of July, with plenty of time to enjoy the local fireworks shows, which I’ve been told were exceptionally impressive.
Once all the pictures of teammates falling asleep in the vans were thoroughly shared & ridiculed, the team made swift moves settling into our trackside garage & living area. While the vast majority of the work on the car is done, there are still things that need attention before the race; the sooner we get everything up to spec, the more time we can spend practicing pit drills, driver changes, and other important race optimizations.