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The American Solar Challenge is an endurance event, taking teams on a cross-country voyage covering over 800 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 Formula Sun Grand Prix will take place in Topeka, Kansas, at the Heartlands Motorsports Park. The facility features a 2.5 mile road course track and is conveniently located 90 minutes from Independence, making for an easy transition to the American Solar Challenge. After 2 days of scrutineering, the race will begin. The goal of this race is not to finish first or go fastest, but to run the most laps with as little energy as possible. Teams are scored based on their car’s efficiency as well as its practicality. Once the 2-day race is complete, participating teams will be judged and scored, and begin to prepare for the next stage of the competition, the American Solar Challenge.
The ASC will take us from Independence, Missouri all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, over 4 days of competitive long-distance racing. Just as in the FSGP, teams are scored on their vehicle’s efficiency and practicality. Unlike the FSGP, they will not have constant access to a garage, or mechanical facilities during the race days -- each team is limited to what they can transport in their support caravans and race trailers. The route crosses prairies, mountains, deserts, and travels through some of the most breathtaking landscapes in America, before the New Mexico finish.
Team Sunergy will be taking ROSE to compete in ASC and FSGP 2021. This will be Rose’s second American Solar Challenge, after racing in the 2018 ASC. Since 2018, ROSE has been significantly rebuilt and upgraded to prepare for this competition. ROSE is a cruiser-class vehicle, meaning it can seat two occupants, a driver and an assistant.
All that was left on the last day was to drive from Las Vegas to Santa Fe then back to Las Vegas. We did it no problem in one stretch with no stops. We stopped at the plaza and gathered the entire team to run across the finish together. We had done it, twe had won a solar car race, and we had done it with no major faults or pit stops the entire way. We had beat a 30 year old team that had built 13 cars. We won all 3 stages. There are also extra awards at the end, and we won an award for the best electrical design (out of all the cars there, not just cruisers). We also won an award for best teamwork. We were a new and inexperienced team, and we proved to everyone that App is a winning team with a winning car. We have good things to come for next year’s ASC, which will be following the Oregon trail.
Here’s some of the gritty behind-the-scenes:
We arrived at the finish in Las Vegas 4th overall, we outperformed over half of the challengers. HunterBristow ‘20, a recent grad traveling with us as an advisor, and the only person at the race this year who had been at a previous race as a student, said: “This was the best team dynamic we’ve ever had at a race. Everyone worked hard, but also had fun.”
And it’s worth considering that the car was much more ready than last race, so it was less stressful, but still stressful. And this was also a team that had never experienced a race before.
On Day 3, we had a heat fault right after leaving the checkpoint in La Junta and we lost an hour. That was the same day we had the major hill though. We were one of only three teams that made it up the hill. Principia and MIT were the only other two who made it. We had one more battery heat fault right before the hill started, and took it slow and steady up after letting it cool off. At this point we had heard about Minnesota’s battery fire and wanted to go slow and steady and just prove we could take the hill.
Jessica was driving at the time, and it was very emotional when we finally made it over the crest of the hill. It was bitter sweet though as we felt bad for Minnesota. They had an extra battery and were able to finish after trailering. Because they trailered, they automatically lost if we both finished, and we all did. They made it to Las Vegas NM the next day finishing stage 2, which we won. We had no faults at all that day, and only had a flat tire, which we fixed very quickly. We always check tires whenever we stop, and we had to stop to do some forced trailering through a construction zone, and noticed a flat, and changed it within minutes.
We started Stage 2 which we would be on for several days, we were heading to a fort in La Junta. From here on out we didn’t know where we would be sleeping at night, and the campsites were hit or miss. It was rough conditions. Racing all day, then splitting up the team to set up camp and cook while others worked on the car. And someone had to always stay awake watching the battery, so we often took shifts on who watched the battery. I pulled a few of those shifts and they’re not fun. We all got in our routine though, everyone knew their part and did it well. We had no major faults in all of the ASC. We did have a few heat faults.
This morning marked the first day of ASC. This would be a completely different experience than the track race. It would be much less consistent and convenient. It was truly a test of the car's reliability. We wouldn’t have a garage to tow ROSE back to if there were any issues, or a hot pit ready to go to change tires. We had to be much more strategic and thoughtful than we had been for FSGP. We had spoken as a team yesterday though, and planned to focus on running our own race. We would do the best race we could do, rather than developing a strategy around beating Minnesota. Minnesota had much more experience, having just gone to the world solar challenge in 2019, and has been around for 30 years and this car was their 14th car they’ve raced. We are a much younger team and ROSE only our 2nd car we’ve ever raced.
So we settled on a strategy to finish ASC as quickly and safely as possible, on our own terms. We were much more confident in ROSE’s reliability than we ever had been before after the success at FSGP. We started from Independence in the order we qualified for ASC, so we started eight out of nine. We only had one fault throughout the whole day, and it was quickly fixed. We got to the checkpoint in Council Grove, Kansa, where we switched drivers and made quick checks on the car. The tires and arrays were all set, and we continued on towards McPhearson, Kansas.
We had no other faults for the rest of the day, and we actually got to McPhearson ahead of Minnesota. They had some electrical wiring issues, and needed to stop several times in the morning. We were the first stage stop winners for the cruiser class. Minnesota had caught up us by the end of the day, and even did an additional loop for miles, which is optional at the stage stops this year. We opted not to as we wanted to have a full battery charge for the next leg of the race. Overall, we were happy with our performance for the day, and scrambled to get to our campsite for the night. We will be heading through Dodge City, Kansas tomorrow.
Today was display day, which gave all the teams an opportunity to show their cars to the public after the track race. All of the solar cars that qualified for ASC would be required to attend, but a few of the cars that didn’t qualify also choose to display their cars. It was a good opportunity to show the cars to the public and media, but an even better opportunity to show the cars to the other teams.
Those most interested in learning more about these solar cars are the students on other solar car teams. We all took turns walking around the different teams and asking questions about the cars. It was a nice change of pace from the non-stop week of working on and completing the cars. Now we could talk about the different parts of the car we had worked on, while learning more about many different cars and designs. For something as small and specialized as a solar car competition, most of the learning comes from peers in the challenge. We always have a (summit thing) but it was virtual this year. This was the first time students could ask questions about the different design choices other students had made on their cars. Whether it is how to best wrap the car so the vinyl sticks to the carbon fiber, or how to make a hinge for an array that works more efficiently. What would otherwise be obscure and irrelevant to most is valuable information for us, as we are learning how to improve our cars every day. Some may look flashy but it is important to remember that these are concept cars and prototypes, and for the students, they are never truly finished or perfect.
After a relaxing day of learning and socializing with the other teams, we all got some food and went back to the hotel. It was nice to stay in a hotel after camping at the race track all week. We all made sure to go to sleep early and be ready for the start of ASC the next morning at 9am. We would be traveling to Council Grove Kansas for our first checkpoint, then McPhearson for the stage stop at the end of the day.
After yesterday’s success we felt much more confident in ROSE and our team. We were in a comfortable position to qualify with ease. We decided not to push the car too hard to try and catch up to Minnesota. They had an entire extra day of laps on us because we started a day late. Our plan was to take our time getting out on the track and be over prepared. We planned to get the 42 more laps we needed to qualify for ASC, as well as qualify Jessica, our fourth and final driver.
We did not get out on the track at 9 am when it opened, and instead got out closer to 10 am. We made sure we were prepared for the laps ahead. We had plenty of time to get the laps we needed. After getting out there we had Jessica finish 22 laps and qualify for ASC as a driver, then switched back to Reid to finish the rest of the laps for the day. Minnesota had been on the track since 9 am and planned to run all day to secure their position in first place for FSGP. We had our sights set in ASC though and focused on ourselves. We planned to take ROSE off the track as soon as we got all the laps needed, and to spend the rest of the day getting ready for ASC.
Once we got close to our goal though we had Reid increase speed from around 30 mph to 35-40mph to test the battery draw and limits of ROSE. We needed to know if we could handle those speeds since we would have to go faster during ASC. After a few quick laps though we realized how close we were to the hot lap for cruisers that Minnesota had set. We were within 10 seconds of the time Minnesota had set for their fastest lap. Reid was very excited when we radioed him to try for a hot lap. We all wanted to see if we could beat Minnesota’s time. After a few laps of trying we got a 3:43 lap which tied Minnesota’s time. Reid was going for one more lap to see if he could beat it when ROSE faulted on the 3 turn. The car was reset and then we finished the lap into the pits. We decided to call it at a tie, and not push ROSE too hard. Funny enough, the challengers (single occupancy vehicles) also tied for the hot lap as well.
After the track had closed for the day, the timers had time to add up all the laps and scores. For the MOV (multi-occupancy vehicle) class, Minnesota’s car Freya was in 1st place. ROSE finished in 2nd, and Iowa State had gotten 3rd. We had performed well, and were confident we would be competitive in the road race ahead. Next up would be display day, followed by the official start of ASC.
Friday marked the official start of FSGP, with the track opening at 10 am that morning. There was a scramble for those of the teams who completed dynamics to finish up any leftover scrutineering before heading to the track that morning. When we had our driver meeting at 8, only two cars were officially scheduled to be able to race, but by the time 10 am rolled around, there were four cars total on the track. We were also part of the mad dash to get on the track as soon as possible. We were a bit behind — still not being finished with dynamics.
The team was anxious to get through the rest of dynamics and scrutineering. We knew our car worked, and we knew we would be able to get it on the track, we were just fighting the clock. We had to make small adjustments throughout the day to turn signals, parking breaks, and other mechanical adjustments for safety. We worked quickly and safely and made good progress. After staying up late to make adjustments to the brakes, we passed the brakes test with ease. The mechanical team did an incredible job making sure the brakes were in peak condition. The last dynamics test was slalom, which is one of, if not the most difficult test to pass. The driver has to weave in and out of cones in a certain time frame. The required time means the driver has to maintain a speed of about 25 miles per hour to pass. All of the solar cars are built to maximize energy efficiency, and this often means aspects like car stability are overlooked when building. One of the teams here, Iowa State University (PrISUm), actually had a wheel come off during their slalom test. ROSE was designed to be as similar to a regular car as possible, so the stability is very good. Our mechanical team also rebuilt the suspension this year, as well as fixing and adjusting the steering. We passed our first run after only a few tries, and soon passed our second run. We were officially done with dynamics! All we had left were a few small adjustments to get green for scrutineering before we could get on the track.
It was a bittersweet feeling because, although as we were making good progress, we knew we were losing precious track time. We were painfully aware of that. Minnesota, easily our biggest competitor for the MOV (multi-occupancy vehicles) had been one of the four cars on the track since start time. They had been running all day, with no delays. While we were passing dynamics, we watched as they passed by every few minutes. Each time we saw them doing another lap, we felt the sting, knowing that we were losing precious time. They took the opportunity to set a commanding lead. They were able to get 85 laps the first day, which means they qualified for the road race, ASC (American Solar Challenge), in one day. They didn’t even need to race for the other two days, but they would. We knew it would be a challenge to catch up, but we stayed focused.
There was nothing we could do but work hard and fast. So that’s exactly what we did. We raced the clock to get on the track before racing ended at 5 pm that day, but we just couldn’t make it in time. We had lost the entire first day of racing to pass the rest of scrutineering. Although by the end of the race day, we were all green to get on the track. We had no penalties left, and would be able to race the entire time tomorrow. We were frustrated at losing so much time, especially knowing Minnesota had such a strong lead. We didn’t let this discourage us though. All that mattered to us now was racing the best our team could tomorrow, and qualify for ASC. We would have the chance to beat them in ASC if we are unable to catch up to them in FSGP.
We made a plan for the morning though. We checked all our tires, radios, and made sure our drivers went to sleep early for tomorrow. The battery was charged, and we were ready to hit the track early in the morning. We felt confident we could be on the track all day tomorrow, and make up for some lost time. All that was left to do was wake up early and show everyone what AppState can do.
The last day of scrutineeirng was here. It felt like it had been weeks since we got to the track, but at the same time it had been entirely too fast. This strange feeling of time for the last few days has been a common thread for the team, due to the combination of working nonstop as well as having time being the only limiting resource. At every step of progress, we find ourselves fighting the clock. Despite the pressure though, today marked good progress. We were able to get through a lot in one day.
We passed battery scrutineering much earlier than we hoped. We were able to pass a little after 3 pm. From there we just had to get a yellow in mechanical scrutineering, then we would be free to start dynamics. After shouting, celebrating, and retaking some pictures of the electrical team in front of the battery, we went straight to the open spot for mechanical scrutineering, and passed that as well with a yellow sticker. We were almost ready to start dynamics. We had to take ROSE to the garage first though for a few adjustments.
It is worth giving some context for some of our challenges this year though. First off we have the biggest and one of the most complex batteries of any other team competing this year. While having a bigger battery is definitely one of our advantages, it has never been used in a race before and has a lot of quirks that need to be fine tuned from testing. Due to COVID though, we were unable to do extensive testing. This means our drivers did not get the training we hoped for, as well as not being able to put test miles on the car. Due to this, much of the biggest problems we’ve encountered have been recently. We had to completely take apart, repair, and reassemble the battery when we got to the track, as well as completely fix and readjust the steering. All things considered, with all the time we lost repairing the battery, we made really good progress today.
The scrutineers at dynamic testing were also very generous with us this evening. We didn’t get to dynamics until close to 6pm, and the scrutineers are only scheduled to stay open until 7pm. The volunteers working dynamics stayed late for us though. It also helped that we bought them all pizza. Thanks to them staying longer though, we were able to pass both the U-turn and figure eight steering tests. We were officially halfway through dynamics, and only have two more stations to get from yellow to green for scrutineering.
The most difficult resource to manage during scrutineering is definitely time, and for the scrutineers to give us any amount of extra time was incredibly valuable. It just speaks to the solar car racing community, and how everyone wants to make sure all teams have a chance to compete on the track. One of the other cruiser class cars, Minnesota State, came over to us after they passed dynamics and scrutineering, and asked if there was anything they could do to help us through the rest of our dynamics. A direct competitor was offering any parts or persons to do anything they could to get us on the track with them. It really is an incredible experience to meet students and teams here.
If all goes well, we will be able to finish scrutineeirng and dynamics early tomorrow, and will hopefully be able to get on the track for a few hours at least. This is only a minor setback, and we will not give up. We will do what we can to be on that track to compete, and qualify for ASC. If there is one thing this team absolutely will never do, it is give up. We stayed up until 2 am fine-tuning the breaks for the dynamic breaks test tomorrow. There is nothing we won’t do. Stay tuned and follow us along on our social media accounts. We will hopefully be doing an instagram live during the track event once we get on the track, as well as interviews of the drivers before and after driving on the track.
Today, the second day of scrutineering, marked another early morning. In fact, our electrical team pulled an all nighter trying to fix issues from the day before. We feel the pressure as we are running out of time, with tomorrow marking the last day of scrutineering. We hope to pass as much scrutineering today as possible.
During FSGP scrutineering, there are several stations where inspectors make sure the car is both functioning and safe for the track race ahead. The scrutineers, as they’re called, will either pass you with a red, yellow, or green sticker for that station. The red means there is a critical issue that must be fixed before testing dynamics. The yellow means the team can go to dynamics, but still must fix the issue before racing on the track. Green means the car is ready to race on the track. We have yellow in most stations at the moment, and red on battery systems and mechanical. After a few adjustments, the team should be yellow in those categories, and ready to get to dynamic testing.
Dynamic testing consists of several timed-driving maneuvers. Each driver must pass a figure eight, U-turn, and slalom (driving in-between cones) steering test, all within a certain time frame. Our drivers, Matt, Reid, Jessica, and Patrick, are confident they can pass each test. Our priority is to get to dynamics as soon as possible tomorrow so we can spend the rest of the time fixing our yellow stickers.
We don’t know yet how soon we can start dynamics, but the progress was good today. We got the kill switch working, and there are only a few small issues left to pass mechanical scrutineering. Hopefully the electrical team can make progress on the battery systems Thursday morning to pass the battery scrutineering station. No matter what, we won’t give up. We will do everything in our power to be ready to compete Friday In a safe and competitive car.
Friday will definitely be a test of endurance and commitment, but we feel confident as a team and trust each other to do our best. We have already been complimented multiple times both from scrutineers and other teams on our teamwork. It is incredible how well the team works together after so little time together. Much of the team has been working in isolation all year because of COVID, and the reveal event at App State last week was actually the first time the entire team was together at one time. So far, our team’s ability to work together with such trust and efficiency is our strongest advantage.
It was an early morning for day four. There was a race-wide meeting at 9 am this morning for all the teams. The race organizers introduced themselves, as well as some of the different scrutineers. There was a roll call for every team, and it was exciting to see all the different teams' chants, as well as the energy in the room from all the students.
After the meeting we went back to the garage to continue preparation for scrutineering. The battery was still being repaired from the other night, so the electrical team was behind. We couldn’t finish the wiring needed to pass scrutineering until the battery was put back together and in the car. Due to this setback, we had quite the slow start to scrutineering.
It had taken almost two full days, but we finally got the battery back together and put it in the car at about 5:30 pm. Once the battery was in, the entire team rushed it to the tech building where we were scheduled for electrical scrutineering, one of the hardest stages to pass. We got through with a red sticker, which means we have systems we need to fix and go back for inspection tomorrow.
We were also able to trade our mechanical inspection time slots for scrutineering with other teams. This gave us more time to fix the issues. This also means the pressure is on. We need to get everything ready for passing mechanical and electrical stations tomorrow, which means another late night.
Still, we made good progress today. The camaraderie between the teams at FGSP is incredible. Every time we faced an issue, we had teams offer to help. Everyone is excited to see the other teams compete, so we all work together to get through scrutineering. It is like the competition only takes place on the track, and at all other times, we would do anything in our power to help the other teams get back on the track.
The morning of day three was a test of the team's spirits. Turns out the battery was damaged in transit from Kentucky to Kansas. Matt Allen, our electrical lead, was fearing the worst. The other leads were also sharing in the despair. The air was filled with a thick fog of dread. There was little hope that we would even be able to compete.
Although, the team came together and stepped up. We held an all hands meeting and Matt filled everyone in on the damages to the battery they discovered last night. We would just have to persevere through, and wait until we got checked into our garage at the track at noon to take a closer look at the battery. We also had our business director, Sam Cheatham, join us at our hotel right before noon. He had been in Utah all summer for an internship, and was greatly missed all summer. Sam brought with him high spirits, and after exchanging some hugs, we all felt a bit more hopeful. We would put our worries aside and focus on what we could control; troubleshooting battery issues at the garage.
So from that point on, if a member was nervous about failure, they didn’t show it. Once arriving and checking in at Heartland Motorsport Speedway, we got all hands to unload and set up in our garages. The team was able to run some tests on the battery, and after a closer look, we realized the situation was much better than we feared the night before. Instead of a major system of the battery being fried, there were just some cells that needed to be re-spotwelded.
It was actually two mechanical team members that stepped up, Jessica and Stephany, who learned how to spot weld from our advisor, Coach Tolbert, and they worked non-stop for the rest of the day repairing the battery. Neither of them had ever spot welded before, but within no time, they had learned, and were working diligently to fix the damage. This allowed our already small electrical team to focus on the lights on the car, which still needed to be finished to pass scrutineering.
We were reminded as we sat there at 1 am that night how long the day had been, and how it had felt like a week had gone by already. We’re in good shape for scrutineering tomorrow though, and this team will do whatever it takes to get ROSE racing Friday.
The team wakes up early in the morning for day two to escape our tents. Everyone was feeling the Kentucky heat and humidity and we were all eager to get on the road and get some AC. We actually left on schedule, at 9 am sharp, so the humidity was definitely a strong motivator. Despite the heat, spirits were high, as the mechanical and electrical teams both made strides of progress working on the car the night before. Although, the moment was fleeting, as it was a late night, and everyone soon realized how much sleep they missed. Having stayed up until 4 am working on the car, we were more prepared for scrutineering, but we’re all in desperate need of naps.
It was another seven hour drive ahead so thankfully everyone got a chance to catch up on some sleep, in preparation for our arrival in Kansas. We drove through the rest of Kentucky and all of Missouri. After driving through St. Louis, and seeing the Gateway Arch, the only notable landmarks seemed to be corn fields . Nate, our videographer student, commented on the sheer magnitude of cornfields, and how unsettling it was. It is definitely a strong change of scenery from the Appalachian Mountains.
Several rest stopsand a very efficient convoy later, we arrived in Topeka, Kansas. We’re staying at a Super 8 tonight, just a few miles away from Heartland Motorsports Speedway, where we will be for the duration of FSGP. As we unpacked, the hum of our generator marked another night ahead of making adjustments on ROSE in preparation for the days ahead. The mood for the team this night is one of efficiency, as everyone is thinking about the hot shower and bed that is waiting for us when we finish. A fleeting luxury, as we’ll be spending the rest of the track race camping at the speedway.
Despite the challenges ahead, the team is buzzing with anticipation for the race. Not just to test our skills, but to meet the other teams as well. Everyone is excited to meet their counterparts for each of the teams, as well as to scope out the other solar vehicles. We are a race team, but also a collection of passionate students, very excited to learn from this experience and meet peers in our field. We even heard from the lobby attendant in our hotel that another solar car team is arriving here at midnight. Everyone is trying to guess which team it will be.
After a very successful and exciting unveiling of the new and improved ROSE, the team woke up early to meet at the warehouse and pack. Most of the team was running off very little sleep, after working out a few last minute kinks with ROSE at the warehouse after the event. Everyone was anxious to get on the road and get some sleep before the long day ahead.
After leaving four hours later than planned, we were finally on the road, ready for the weeks ahead. We made sure not to leave anything we may need behind. After driving for seven hours, through Knoxville, Nashville, and the rest of Tennessee, we were finally at our first stop, which was Dam Village, Kentucky. We will have to travel all the way to Topeka Kansas, where FSGP (Formula Sun Grand Prix) and scrutineering would be held, with the trailer and multiple vans, so we spread the trip out over two days.
Once we finally got settled in Kentucky Dam Village Campground, where we had our reservations for the night, it was around 10pm. Although, it felt like 11pm because we crossed time zones and went back an hour. Unfortunately, the team didn’t have much time to adjust to the time difference as they immediately got set up to start work for the night.
The tenacity of the team this year is surreal. From the moment the vans stopped, everyone swarmed to unpack. The team divided immediately and instinctively, with some students setting up an outdoor workshop for the night, unloading ROSE to make adjustments. The rest of the team set up the campsite, then flocked to the trailer to help those preparing for a late night of work.
Without any direct instructions, or time wasted organizing, the team was unpacked and working within the hour. The advisors were left with nothing to do but stand by, hoping to provide any support or assistance, but mostly standing impressed at the work ethic being so predominantly demonstrated by the team. It leaves one with a real sense of excitement and pride in a team so passionate about their project. This bodes well for the success and determination of the team to come once we arrive at FSGP. Be ready Kansas, we are coming and we are confident.