The American Solar Challenge will start Tuesday in Independence and end in New Mexico

By Mike Genet
The Examiner

Monday was just for show, though it would’ve been the ideal driving day for several groups of college students – bright sun with rarely any clouds.  

About a dozen teams descended on the Independence Square early Monday to set up their specially crafted vehicles for the American Solar Challenge – five-day trek of nearly 1,000 miles along the approximate path of the Santa Fe Trail commemorating the trail’s bicentennial. The teams take off in their solar-powered cars Tuesday morning, aiming for McPherson, Kansas. They will finish in Las Vegas, New Mexico, just east of Santa Fe. 

Over the weekend, the teams had driven at Heartland Motorsports Park in Topeka, trying to complete as many laps as possible in the Formula Sun Grand Prix, with a minimum number needed to qualify for the Solar Challenge. The entire event is organized by Innovators Educational Foundation, a non-profit group based in Rolla. Last year’s event was canceled due to the pandemic, which also limited participation this year. 

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Teams of college students move their cars into display positions Monday on the Independence Square for the American Solar Challenge. The five-day event with solar-powered vehicles begins Tuesday morning and will end in New Mexico.

One of the nine teams to make the cut, students from Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C., had their vehicle set up early Monday morning outside the Pharaoh Cinema parking lot to spruce up the vehicle. 

Whereas many of the single-occupancy vehicles resemble flat tops with a bubble for the driver, Appalachian State’s car is in the multi-occupant class and resembles a sports car, with the photovoltaic cells – which convert sunlight into energy – affixes on the hood and roof. 

“It’s unique in that it is one of the only ones that looks like a car,” team member Sam Cheatam said. 

“It was designed by a furniture design student, so there’s an emphasis on curvature,” added Jessica Navarro-Luciano, who will be one of the team’s four drivers during the trek. “It’s more about beauty than aero-dynamics.” 

Other schools with cars either competing in the Solar Challenge or traveling along for show after running in the Grand Prix: Kentucky, Western Michigan, Illinois State, Illinois, Minnesota, Cal-Berkeley, MIT, Principia (Ill.), Georgia Tech, Iowa State and North Carolina State.

Students from the Appalachian State team clean their solar-powered car Monday morning on the Independence Square as they prepare for the American Solar Challenge. The five-day event of nearly 1,000 miles begins Tuesday morning from the Square and will end in New Mexico after following the approximate path of the Santa Fe Trail.

The various restrictions wrought by COVID-19 made it a challenge for college teams all over to construct and test their vehicles, Cheatam and Navarro-Luciano said. Just over the weekend they scrambled to work on the battery, which is necessary to store power and allow teams to still drive – if not at optimal speed – during overcast or rainy days. 

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“We had to do some major disassembling,” Navarro-Luciano said. “What we might normally do in two months we had to do in two days.” 

Besides the driver(s), teams have lead and chase vehicles to carry equipment and other team members, so they can make repairs as necessary. Before and after driving each day, teams are allowed to charge their batteries, and the batteries are then impounded overnight. The lightest vehicles weigh about 400 pounds or less. 

“Everybody else is making sure everything is OK,” Navarro-Luciano said. 

Next year, organizers hope to travel an Oregon Trail route with the Solar Challenge. 

Because they have to gather sponsorships and also plan and construct their vehicles, National Park Service Ranger Carol Clark told the teams, the Solar Challenge is a bit of an homage to the settlers and traders who traveled the trail and “showed human ingenuity in tough times.” 

“For us, today, 1,000 miles is just a car trip,” Clark said.  

Even if it’s a unique car trip.