Sunseeker builds on 30+ years of ‘raycing’ with the sun

Contact: Elizabeth VandenHeede
Sunseeker Solar Team

The team unveils their next generation solar car, Sunseeker 23, during an event at the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Museum on Oct. 28, 2023.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—“Racing is spelled r-a-y-c-I-n-g because the cars are powered by sun rays,” explains Byron Izenbaard, B.S.E.’13, a proud Western Michigan University Sunseeker alumnus and current engineer at Stryker.

Izenbaard is one of the many alumni who remain connected to WMU’s solar car team. Sunseeker was formed over 30 years ago when a group of students set out to design, build and compete with a solar car. Their goal remains the same today—enhance our understanding of renewable energy and make renewable energy sources more viable for the future.

Each year, Western’s team competes against other universities from around the country. The Formula Sun Grand Prix (FSGP) is a track race and the location of it can vary by year. The 2023 FSGP took place at Heartland Motorsports Park in Topeka, Kansas. The team must pass scrutineering (technical inspections and dynamic tests) to earn the opportunity to compete in the three-day race that determines which team can complete the most 2.5-mile laps. The American Solar Challenge (ASC) is held every other year immediately following the FSGP. Teams that qualify at the FSGP can then compete in the ASC, a week-long road rally style event where teams drive their solar cars across a portion of the United States. Sunseeker is one of only two teams to attend almost every race since the national competition was founded in 1990. 

Dr. Brad Bazuin, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has served as a faculty advisor for the team since 2008.

“You do this to watch students advance—learn things, grow,” says Bazuin. “We’re here to educate and Sunseeker is a significant extension of that. It gives students the opportunity to be part of a cross-disciplinary team and solve sophisticated problems. A lot of these great students have gone on to exciting and interesting careers.”

Izenbaard is one of these former WMU students who makes time to help the current generation of Sunseekers. When he’s not working on new product development at Stryker, Izenbaard returns to campus to work with the team. He attends the team’s weekly meetings to help mentor students and share past experiences with the team.

“Being involved with Sunseeker during college helped me learn what it takes to be successful in a fast-paced, high-stakes environment,” Izenbaard says. “It taught me the hands-on skills that are invaluable in the workplace.”

Joe Walega, B.S.E.’23, served as Sunseeker’s president and project manager from 2021 through the team’s most recent race—the 2023 Formula Sun Grand Prix in July 2023.

“My favorite experience with Sunseeker has been learning what the project offers to everyone who encounters the team,” says Walega. “We have left an impression on tens of thousands of people at our events just during my time on Sunseeker. Being able to tell the public about what we do and the mission of sustainability that we strive for has been irreplicable. There have been countless events where I’ve had people come up to me and tell me about how they wrote a high school essay on the Sunseeker or how they are related to a past member of the team, telling me their stories while I teach them about how far we’ve come.”

Walega helped rebuild the student organization following the COVID-19 pandemic. Sunseeker started the 2021 school year with just four members and has rebuilt that to an active group with more than 100 members.

Looking to the Future with Sunseeker

Eliza Eaton, president of Sunseeker

The Sunseeker team can hardly contain their excitement about the new car they built that will race for the first time in summer 2024. Walega worked closely with Sunseeker’s 2023-24 president, Eliza Eaton, on the fabrication of the shell for the new solar car. Together, Walega and Eaton created what they say is the lightest and most efficient aeroshell that has been created at WMU.

Eaton, a senior studying aerospace engineering, first found out about the Sunseeker Solar Car Project as a senior in high school and joined the team during her first year at WMU. She served as director of engineering for two years before taking on the role of president this year. Eaton shares in the excitement about the newest solar car, as well as what’s next for the team.

“This next vehicle is statistically Sunseeker’s best race car produced, and many team members cannot wait to test it,” she says. “For solar car competitions, the goal is to be as efficient as possible, which means you want to minimize the aerodynamic drag. Sunseeker 23 has accomplished that goal with having a lower drag coefficient than most automotive side-view mirrors.”

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