By LIBBY CLUETT
Fourteen high school teams met at the starting line Tuesday, near the Texas Motor Speedway, to start the Solar Car Challenge – rolling across the western part of the United States solely using solar power.
Right about lunchtime, the cars and teams of an estimated 150 hungry teens, along with many adults, too, rolled into Mineral Wells, helping boost the economy.
According to Race Technical Director Chris Jones, the teams come from all over the nation.
“We have teams from New York to California and all over, in between,” he said.
Jones explained that the challenge is just for high school teams, noting, “Everything that you see here is built from the ground up and designed by high school students. So, these are future engineers and scientists.”
But Tuesday wasn’t the first day on the road. Jones said the teams, with about 10-15 high school members each, had to check in their vehicles.
“Before this they’ve already been through two full days of what we call scrutineering, which is qualifying, where they’ve had every inch of their car poured over,” said Jones.
“They’ve had to go tweak things and fix things and discovered there were things they thought they could get away with that maybe they couldn’t quite do.
“So they’ve already been working quite hard in the wonderful warm weather we’re having to get to this point,” he explained.
For the challenge, students have to drive their solar-powered vehicles to Los Angeles over eight days, fueled by the July sun.
While Jones said hundreds of teams express interest each year, about 50 build a car and about 20 register. Those who make it “are already the top 10 percent in the entire nation,” he said, adding, “All these teams have pulled it together and made it, so I’m very proud this year.”
There are three categories with some limitations, namely with size and dimension. Jones said the classic division has restrictions on the solar cells and motors, while the open division is for student who want to have cars that are more extreme and expensive. In the advanced division, he said students can play around more with battery technology and monocoque molding around car “and really push the extremes on it.”
“We have teams in all three categories,” he said. “There are a few teams in this competition that could give the colleges a run for their money.”
Jones said the event was first organized, and continues to be organized by Dr. Lehman Marks, who also serves as race director.
“This is the 20th anniversary from when Dr. Marks started this whole teaching process and this event back in 1993,” Jones noted.
Through informal studies, by polling teachers years after the challenge, Jones said they have found that the Solar Car Challenge participants “are much more likely to go into engineering and sciences, [and] they more readily get accepted into some of the more prestigious colleges.”
Now a volunteer for the annual event, Jones said he started 17 years ago as a competitor – a high school sophomore – “floundering, with no idea” what he wanted to do.
He said he found this event event, which got him ultimately into engineering. After receiving a degree in mechanical engineering he worked with the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for four years and now works for defense contractor Raytheon, where he said he continues to work on NASA programs.
“But none of that would have happened without this event,” he said.
“And I’m not the only one that’s like that. That’s why I, and a few others that were part of that original team, still come back and volunteer as staff. We see what it does for kids.”
“They are … incredibly bright and dedicated,” Jones said of the teams of contestants. “There are few challenges in my life that I can say have been more difficult than participating in this competition.
“Kids will pour over these cars for years – one or two years – before they ever get it here. And then, at the worst possible time, something will fail.
“They will be 100 miles down the road [with] no towns nearby, they’ll have an axle broken – a custom machined part – and say, ‘Now what,’” Jones said.
“But the thing is these kids are so resourceful. Every time they will pick up the car and they will put it back together and they will keep going.
They have never failed. I have never had a team here, in 17 years I have been involved with this, that has outright failed at this,” Jones stated.
“The reason why this project is so great is this is the first real-world experience they are every going to have. They are forced to work together in a team. They are forced to do the fundraising. None of these cars is cheaper than about $20,000, plus another
$5,000-$10,000 to haul the team across [the country]. That is not going to just get handed to them. They actually have to go and work for it,” he explained.
Jones said the project is too big to have someone step in and help.
“They have to pick themselves up when they fall. It truly is a safe and good opportunity for them to experience what a real-world project is like.
“These kids are sharp and they know how to think outside the box,” he added. “They can get the formal education later on, but they’ve learned more life lessons than someone would normally learn.”