WMU News

Sunseeker team readies car for grueling race

July 2, 2001

Sunseeker Web site

KALAMAZOO -- For most drivers, failing to time their speed so they cruise uninterrupted through a series of traffic lights is a momentary annoyance. For entries in this year's American Solar Challenge, who have more than 500 energy-sapping traffic lights to negotiate, it could mean the difference between winning or losing-or even finishing the race.

That's just one set of challenges members of Western Michigan University's Sunseeker team are facing as they prepare their entry for a grueling, 2,300-mile, cross-country solar car race that begins July 15 in front of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and ends 10 days later in Claremont, Calif. The WMU team has one of 35 to 40 vehicles from around the world being readied for the biennial solar race. This year's course along historic Route 66 is the longest ever and may be the most difficult.

"The challenge for most teams this year may simply be finishing the race," says WMU's Dr. Daniel Litynksi, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "Reliability and endurance will be the real keys to success."

Sunseeker team leader Geoffrey Klein, a recent automotive engineering graduate from West Seneca, N.Y., agrees and says team members are preparing for the physical challenges before them.

"The sheer length of the race is the biggest test," Klein says. "Every team will be wondering if its car and team are strong enough to do it."

In addition to being ready to negotiate traffic lights without making a series of stops, the team is preparing for a trek through the intense summer heat of the Arizona and New Mexico deserts and the challenge of climbing through the lower end of the Rocky Mountains. Such extreme terrain conditions for the 2001 race led the team to decide against building a new vehicle and, instead, bring one of WMU's most popular and reliable solar race cars out of retirement. Sunseeker 95, which finished in eighth place in 1995, is being re-engineered, fitted with a new solar array and renamed Sunseeker 295 for the race.

The vehicle will emerge from WMU Vehicle Design Labs next week ready to take part in the Western Michigan University Formula Sun Grand Prix, the final qualifying events for the American Solar Challenge. Nearly all of the entries for this year's race, which include many of the nation's top engineering schools, are expected on the WMU campus July 9-13 for a week of vehicle testing and road trials mandated by ASC to ensure the entries are ready for the race.

According to team leader Klein, the Sunseeker 295 entry will face those tests with larger honeycombed solar array panels that are lighter and easier to work with than those used in previous years. An extension to the vehicle's tail section supports the new solar array, which has a total of 702 photovoltaic solar cells to collect energy from the sun that can be stored in the car's battery system. That system also has been redesigned and now includes three battery boxes housing 10 lead-acid batteries.

Despite modifications, Klein expects Sunseeker 295 to weigh in at about 625 pounds, slightly less than Sunseeker 95. The vehicle is just under 20 feet long, 6.6 feet wide and a low 3.3 feet in height.

The vehicle's maximum speed is 70 miles per hour, but average race speeds are expected to be substantially lower than that figure. In fact, racers will be penalized for exceeding posted road speeds on the course. The winner of the rain-plagued 1999 race, which traveled 1,300 miles from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla., posted a winning speed of only 25.4 miles per hours. The fastest American solar race to date was in 1997, when the winning team averaged 43.29 miles per hour between Indianapolis and Colorado Springs, Colo.

This year's race is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory and EDS. Additional sponsors are Terion and Verizon Wireless. The competition, previously known as SunRayce, ran in 1990, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999. WMU is one of only eight schools in the nation to have completed all five previous races.

Major changes to this year's event include the elimination of mandatory nightly stops for racers. During previous races, teams traveled to a prescribed evening finish point each day of the race. While mandatory checkpoints have been set up along the route, most only require one-half hour media stops before racers are allowed to go on. There are only two mandatory overnight stops this year, one in Rolla, Mo., and one in Barstow, Calif. During the rest of the race, the progress of each entry will be tracked by race sponsor Terion, using a sophisticated satellite Location and Communication System, or LCS.

As in previous years, race standings are determined by total elapsed time to complete the course, and each team is accompanied by an official race observer who will check times and watch for race infractions.

WMU's Sunseeker team is counting on experience and the University's solar race history to give it the edge.

"We'll be really competitive," Klein says. "The basic car is very reliable and that could be the key in this race. We're also very lucky to have so many people here who have been involved for a long time and are able to give advice. And we have the benefit of having our earlier cars to look at and learn from."

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 616 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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