Solar race team will take 25 years of experience on the road

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Photo of the 2014 Sunseeker car.

The 2014 Sunseeker car

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's Sunseeker solar car racing team heads for Texas July 12 to pit its racing skill and WMU's 25 years of racing experience against teams from engineering schools around the world in the 2014 American Solar Challenge.

The 14-member team will head for Austin, Texas, to take part in two qualifying events for the 2014 international collegiate race that begins July 21 in Austin and ends 1,751 miles later on July 28 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Prior to the start of the biennial, cross-country solar car race, competitors will take part in scrutineering—a detailed technical check of the race vehicles—as well as three days of racing in the Formula Sun Grand Prix. The closed-course track race will be held July 17-19 at Austin's Circuit of the Americas Grand Prix facility.

Over two decades of experience racing solar cars

The WMU team is led this year by Project Manager Bryan Harris, a senior mechanical engineering student from Wixom. As the team prepares for these two events, Harris says they are all anticipating both the current competitive opportunity as well as the next era in solar racing at WMU.

"The team is looking forward to competing against and learning from those national and international teams in attendance, this year," Harris says, "especially as we look forward to building a new vehicle this fall semester."

This year marks the 25th year of solar car racing at WMU. The first vehicle was built in 1989 after the University submitted a successful proposal to General Motors to field an entry in the forerunner to that year's race, the GM Sunrayce. WMU students spent all of 1989 and the first half of 1990 working on the vehicle—christened Sunseeker—to take part in a race that began at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and ended at GM's Tech Center in Warren.

The Sunseeker name stuck, and a WMU car by that name has been part of all 10 races held since then. The University's team has finished in fifth, sixth and twice in eighth place and has captured best design awards in post-race ceremonies. WMU is one of only four schools to have participated in all the previous races. The 2012 race traveled through Kalamazoo, giving local citizens a chance to see the competitors and the cars they usually can only follow from afar.

This year's race

This year's entries in the race include teams from engineering schools in the United States as well as four teams from Canada and teams from Iran, India and Puerto Rico. About two dozen teams are expected to bring their cars to compete in both the Formula Sun Grand Prix and the American Solar Challenge. Three of those teams are from Michigan, with the other two hailing from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

This year marks the third ASC race for the current version of WMU's Sunseeker, although it has been modified for each race to meet new requirements and to enhance its competitive position. The Sunseeker is powered by 372 solar cells arranged for maximum power collection. A lithium polymer battery allows captured energy to be stored and used as needed.

The single-seat vehicle with driver aboard weighs 780 pounds. The body and frame is made of corrugated honeycomb-Fiberglas panels, carbon fiber, and Innegra composite with a steel roll cage. The car is the first three-wheeled design produced by the WMU team, and is also one of only a few three-wheeled designs with two powered wheels competing.

During the race events in Texas and heading north toward Minnesota, the team will be posting updates on its website, wmich.edu/sunseeker. Visit this site also for information about companies sponsoring the team, additional details about the project, and a number of photos and videos.

Faculty advisor to this year's team is Dr. Bradley J. Bazuin, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Alumnus and former team member Byron Izenbaard is serving as an industry advisor.

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