Racing Solar Powered Cars

For many (many) years I have been a fan of automobile racing, in High School I did some rat racing with cars I souped up myself and, later on, I seriously thought about purchasing a Legends Racer and trying my hand in those competitions. But I settled instead for being an avid fan of NASCAR Cup racing, as well as taking in the occasional Nation Wide Series (formerly the Busch Series) and or a Camping World Trucks race (formerly Craftsman Trucks). I have a brother-in-law and two nephews who are all involved in drag racing. One of those nephews, Paul Timmermann, recently branched out into a new form of racing; solar powered cars.

Team Mercury

solar race car
ISU Mercury III

Illinois State University’s Mercury III team is a multidisciplinary team of students and faculty who volunteer their time and energy to advance their skills and the promise of renewable energy. Led by music major Al Hackel and chemistry major Jason Savage, the team consists of more than 20 students and alumni from four departments at Illinois State University. The student team is advised by Professors Dan Holland, Brian Clark, David Marx, and Jim Dunham in the Physics department. The team entered their car in the 2010 American Solar Challenge; a competition to design, build, and drive solar-powered cars in a cross-country time/distance rally which ran 1,100 miles along public roads starting from Broken Arrow Oklahoma on Sunday, June 20th, wound through Kansas, Missouri and ended at Naperville Illinois on Saturday June 26th. There were stage check-points at Topeka KS, Rolla MO, and Normal IL where the teams would stop for the night and start out together the next morning. Racing times between check-points were cumulative with the lowest cumulative times determining the three winners.

2010 American Solar Challenge Winners

The winners were: First Place: car #2 – University of Michigan with a time of 28:14:44, Second Place: car #35 – University of Minnesota with a time of 30:26:53 and Third place was the unusually shaped car #10 – Bochum University of Applied Sciences (Germany) with a total time of 30:34:50.

A Winning Spirit

The Illinois State team did not place highly due to a series of mechanical failures, but they were awarded the Esprit de Corps. The A.S.C. web site says,This award recognizes the team that most lives up to the mission of the foundation and race to promote education and outreach.”

Laurie Timmermann, mother of Team Mercury member Paul Timmermann states, “Those guys earned that award; they worked really hard, going for days with little or no sleep to overcome the challenges that cropped up. They simply refused to quit and go home. The team’s official time of a little over 70 hours looks really terrible on paper, but is grossly inflated due to penalties. They actually finished just a short time behind the leaders.”

I.S.U.’s Team Mercury states, “We plan to continue competing in races across North America and the world as a way to test and improve our skills and promote a greener future.”

A Saga of Courage and Determination

Illinois State University’s Dr. George Rutherford chronicled the team’s progress and challenges, his notes provide the following account. The complete saga is available [here].

The Race Team:

  • Al Hackel, a music major
  • Jason Savage, a chemistry major
  • Josh Burnet, a biology major
  • Paul Aplington, a renewable energy major
  • Paul Timmermann, a business information systems major
  • Jim Dunham and George Rutherford, advisors

Many others worked hard in the weeks before the race but who couldn’t go on the trip.

​The saga officially begins on June 12, 2010; scheduled to be a travel day, but some of the newly acquired solar cells still need to be attached to the car, so the team decides to work on that first and leave early the next morning for the drive from Normal IL to Texas Motorsport Ranch in Cresson, TX. The caravan consisting of three automobiles and a race car hauler borrowed from Timmermann Construction Company set out at 6:00 Sunday morning and arrived in Cresson just before dark that same day.

Suspect Suspension

A few solar cells still needed to be connected, so Josh B, Paul A, and Paul T. removed the upper shell from the car and worked at the hauler to complete the task while the others took the chassis for inspection.

The safety inspectors decided that Team Mercury’s front suspension parts were too lightweight to withstand the long road race ahead and insisted that if the team were to compete, heavier suspension parts would be required. The inspectors did agree to allow the team to qualify the car with its current set-up while they manufactured an entirely new front suspension.

The Formula Sun Grand Prix

Qualifying the field of solar racer cars that showed up to compete in the “American Solar Challenge” was accomplished with the “Formula Sun Grand Prix”; a closed track race of 100 laps around the 1.7-mile track in a single day or a total of 150 laps over two consecutive days.

Team Mercury felt confident that they could complete their qualifying the first day; Thursday June 17th. Trouble reared its head early when a part of the solar array began to smoke. It was determined that the solar cells along the rear edge and front edge of the car were being shorted out by carbon fiber seam tape – which is electrically conductive. A team brain-storming session yielded a creative solution; plastic playing cards, slid in under the solar cells isolated them from the seam tape and allowed them to get in the race.

Team Mercury was 12 laps from its goal when a tire blew, taking them out of the race for the day. They would need to run at least another 62 laps on Friday to qualify. They did this easily posting a respectable speed on a course with hills, sharp curves, and no-passing zones.  The team took the car immediately back to the trailer area in order to disassemble the front suspension.

Suspension Fabrication

To fabricate a new suspension system, the team needed a full machine shop and a heavy TIG welder. The TIG welder the team brought with them proved to light to weld the heavier metal of the new suspension parts.

Through former ISU colleague Shaukat Goderya, now at Tarleton State University, Team Mercury obtained permission to use the shop facilities there.  The next challenge came when it was discovered that TSU’s heavy TIG welder was not working. But the team engineered a solution to this problem too; they combined TSU’s power supply and their small welder. The heavier power supply allowed the smaller welder to produce the heat needed to weld the heavy metal parts, but a safety system shut the welder down after about a minute of welding and required ten minutes for the welder to cool to safe levels before it would start up again. So the one-hour welding job took the team ten hours to complete, but complete it they did.

Dr. Rutherford states, “The team owes great thanks to Dr. George Mollick, head of the Engineering Technology department at TSU, for his time and generosity.”

However by the time the new suspension was installed, it was early Sunday morning, and the “American Solar Challenge” race was to start at noon in Broken Arrow, OK, a six-hour drive away.  Now the team faced its toughest decision. They could drive through this night and arrive at the race start in time to enter, but they would have to drive the entire day after having gotten no sleep at all that night and precious little sleep for the previous 3 nights, or they could trailer the car to the first check-point in Topeka KS, get a good night’s sleep and begin their race in earnest from there. The down side was a heavy penalty in points is assessed for trailering a car during any part of the race. Team Mercury decided to sacrifice the points in the name of safety, loaded up their car and headed for Topeka.

In the Race Again

Team Mercury rejoined the race on Tuesday, June 22 after some much needed rest and time to tune the car. During pre-race inspection it was found that a brake light switch had gone out. A spare was available, but the new switch was larger than the old, requiring that the shank hole be drilled out. Drilling the hole broke the weld holding the small bracket together, requiring that the welder be brought over from the team hauler, 1000 yards away. By the time the bracket was re-welded, the new switch installed and tested and the gear all put away ready for the caravan to pull out, the race had re-started and Team Mercury was an hour behind the others. The Mercury III car was capable of some good speeds, but along the way to the next check-point; Topeka KS, they blew two tires. Still, they finished the day only 12 miles behind the other teams.

An Uphill Battle

Wednesday, June 23 found the teams racing through hilly terrain and Team Mercury hit another snag when Northwestern University’s car gave out just before the crest of a hill, and in a no passing zone. Team Mercury, of course, was behind them and had to stop and wait while the NU team pushed their car to the shoulder. Getting the Mercury III car going again from a dead stop on a steep uphill slope exceeded the limits of a safety device that restricts how much current can be fed into the motor, so ISU’s team was forced to push the car a bit to get it going, and earned another penalty.

The hilly terrain also took a toll on the battery and near the end of the day, with the sun setting, the team decided to stop for a while and tilt the solar array toward the fading sunlight to juice up the battery. This delay caused them to miss the official closing of the day again, but by less than 15 minutes.

More Suspension Woes

A quick inspection the next morning showed uneven wear on the front tires and great concern about the potential of blowing out more tires enroute. A realignment of the front suspension was performed, causing another late start for Team Mercury, but they set out confident of better racing ahead.

Along the way a drive sprocket wore out and needed replacing. With no spare on hand, Al Hackle set out for a farm supply store in hopes of finding a suitable replacement. What he found was close, but needed modification. Luckily the store owner had an old arc welder and allowed Hackle to use it to make the needed modifications. This delay caused the team to miss the closing of the day again, suffering yet another penalty in points.

The team over-nighted at an Ameren power plant near Alton IL where an inspection revealed yet another imminent failure in the drive train. This time the team pulled out cell phones and cobbled together a support system through friends and relatives in rural Illinois that resulted in spare parts from ISU being delivered to them by motorcycle.

Although Team Mercury was the last team to roll out on the road from Normal, improvements to the drive train and power systems the night before allowed them to pass four other teams along the road to Naperville and cross the finish line an hour before the official closing of the race.

A Poor Finish Is a Good Finish

In conclusion, Dr Rutherford says this of his team, “Of the 15 teams who actually qualified for the road race, Team Mercury came in 13th place, last of the teams who finished the entire race.

Even this modest result was the best of any ISU road race team, since Mercury III drove the lion’s share of the race – every mile from Topeka to Naperville – using only the power of the sun.  Given that the road team was only five students and two advisors (the smallest of any team in the race) and that the team’s budget, including gifts in kind, amounted to only about $40,000 (the smallest of any team’s budget, often by a large factor), I stand by my original description of this team: extraordinary.”

Dr. Rutherford’s complete account is available [here].

Lawn Mower Man’s Busy Day

lawnmower troubleI’ve been having trouble with my lawn mower.  All 3 of them.  But the one I’ve been using to actually mow is a Craftsman self propelled walk-behind mower.  It’s kind of a wrestling match to use on this hilly terrain, but it got the job done, until recently.  It’s been getting harder and harder to start, and the past two times it has tried to yank my fingers off when I pull on the starter rope.  I’ve decided that it’s firing the spark plug too soon: before T.D.C., and shooting the piston back down the cylinder, turning the crankshaft *backwards* thus instead of ratcheting on past the pull-starter pawls it locked in the pawls and ripped the cord back down – along with two of my fingers.

Seriously, it took most of last week for me to get the pain in the two middle fingers down to where I could use them.  I thought I’d dislocated them.  Last night after work I went out and tried again.  Why?  Cause I’m either stupid or incredibly stubborn.  After 9 or 10 fast, consecutive yanks on the rope, just as I was about to pass out, the thing coughed and jerked back.  I picked up my fingers and shoved the mower back into the shed, totally disgusted.

I’ve been trying to decide what to do about the mower.  I could take it to the repair shop in town, but I have no idea what it would end up costing to fix because I have no idea what’s wrong with it.  On a car, or at least a decent sized 4-stroke engine, I’d know where to start looking.  But on these little two strokers, I don’t even know if one can adjust the timing, or where such a thing would be done.  It would have to be on the crankshaft somewhere, but I’d have to tear the engine down to go looking for it.  I’m not tooled up for that.  I build furniture, not engines.

Add to that rather helpless feeling the fact that this mower is something my Mom gave me when she moved out here, and Brian (my half-brother) gave her when he moved to an apartment.  The last time he was out here visiting he saw me mowing the lawn with it and commented that he was surprised it was still running, “That thing has a LOT of miles on it!” So maybe it’s just time.

Add to that the fact that it is built like a tank.  And is almost as heavy.  Being sturdy is a good thing, but having to man-handle it around all the obstacles and up, down and across these slopes gets to be quite a work-out.  Which is not all bad, especially for someone who is 50 pounds overweight.  But, still… there are limits.

OK.  So when I started suspecting that this day might be coming up on us, I started doing some research.  Assuming that I don’t want to use a regular riding mower because of the DisneyLand E-Ticket ride qualities of trying to mow these hills on a rider, and the fact that I’ve rolled the rider twice and the fact that I can’t possibly afford the wide, low slung, kind of riding mowers that are made for this type of terrain (they start around $4,000.00) and I don’t really want to fence in the yard and buy a herd of goats for Zadie to chase around, what kind of mower would be best for mowing this yard?

Distilled form many reviews, articles and discussions these are the prime requirements:

  • Self propelled
  • Multi-speed transmission
  • REAR wheels powered, not the front
  • Biggest wheels possible, especially the rear ones.
  • Sturdy but not too heavy.
  • Thrifty on fuel is nice.
  • Option of using side discharge, not just a bagger.

Armed with these specifications, I went searching for a mower that encompasses as many of these attributes as possible – and falls within my very limited budget.  I found several that sold for $600 (too much) to $900 (way too much) and one that sold for under $400.  High but doable – if it is a good mower.  Specifications are [here] if you are interested.

I looked for reviews and user commentary.  It looks like this model has just been added to the Troy-Bilt line.  I found ONE comment and that was posted as reader feedback on a Poplar Mechanics review of lawn mowers, he was telling them that his mower would run circles around all of the ones reviewed, and they should have included the Troy-Bilt in their review.  Over all, comments on Troy-Bilt mowers are good.  One fellow cursed them up one side and down the other, but I think he was trying to use it as a brush hog, and the other users of that discussion forum ‘splained it to him too.  Especially the Troy-Bilt owners.

So, I found my mower.  Now, where can I get one.  There are several places (fairly) locally that are Troy-Bilt dealers, but none of them stock Troy-Bilt.  They can order one and have it in a week to 10 days and all of them had the same pricing.  One told me that Troy-Bilt and Cub Cadet are both built by MTD and are essentially the same mowers.  OK, does Cab Cadet make a model with these same specs? “Um, well, no they don’t.” So what what was your point?

More poking around and I find that Lowes sells a version of the TB86K XP; the TB340 XP which is identical except that it has a Briggs & Stratton engine instead of a Kohler.  I know Kohler makes good engines in the Marine Diesel line and commercial grade gas engines, but discussions with the mechanics at the dealerships I called (gotta love that Magic Jack phone: free long distance) confirmed that these small gas engines were something new to Kohler.  They agreed that Kohler makes good engines, but no one could attest to the reliability of these small engines.  Briggs & Stratton is a name I know and have trusted for decades.  They know small gas engines.

So I called the local Lowes – fully expecting to be told that they do sell the TB340 XP but are sold out or they are a special order item.  WRONG!  Surprise!  They have 6 on hand.  So I added Lowes to our list of places to go today.

Then I ran the truck over to the shop and started loading it up with all manner of stuff.  Some was plain trash, some was recyclable trash, my dead U.P.S.  and a baggie of dead batteries, 20 or so cabinet doors, a couple large trash bags of clothes that Marie doesn’t want any more, and so on.

I took the truck back over to the house.  Marie was still dressing, so I went down to Mom’s house.

Mom had borrowed my garden sprayer to mix up a batch of herbicide and spray her driveway to kill off the grass and weeds.  But, she couldn’t get it to work.  Or, so she said.  So I want to look at it.  I pumped up the pressure, twisted the nozzle to open it up and pulled the trigger – worked fine.  So I figured that this was her sideways way of saying that she’d like me to spray her driveway for her.  So I did.  Took all of five minutes.  Then I transferred her weed killer mix into another container, took the sprayer up to the shop and mixed up a batch of my own weed killer in the sprayer for use later on.

Back home again.  Marie was ready to go.

First stop was the local Convenience Center (where rural residents take their trash).  Trash-trash went into a dumpster, paper and cardboard into the bin for that, steel cans (and a few worn out bandsaw bands) into the steel bin, plastic jugs into the bin for plastic.

On down the road to Wilton Springs Hardware.  They were having “Bucket Days” today.  Ninety nine cents gets you a sturdy 5 gallon bucket (always handy to have) and anything you can fit into it is 15% off the marked price.  We found a few things we needed, talked with Mitch the manager, enjoyed a couple of free hot dogs and sodas for lunch, C93 radio was doing a live remote, Cowboy Kevin was the on-the-scene DJ.  We know Kevin well.  We declined to go on-air with him, but when we went through to have a hot dog he came and sat with us.  We discussed the various meanings of “chilly dog” depending on what part of the country you are from.

Next on the itinerary was the Goodwill store in Newport.  We donated the cabinet doors, clothing and some light fixtures.

Then down to the Wal-Mart parking lot and the Electronics Recycling drive that was going on this weekend.  I gave them the U.P.S.  and the baggie of batteries and chatted with Elizabeth the director of Keep Cocke County Beautiful and David a K.C.C.B.  member and R.I.D.  (Remove Illegal Dumpsites) mucky-muck.  Elizabeth commented that you’d think that after doing this drive a couple times a year for several years, you’d start running low on junk electronics, but not so; each time, they get MORE than before.  They already had enough computer equipment to fill a semi trailer all by itself and boxes and boxes (big boxes) of small appliances.  Amazing!

Finally we went on to Lowes and got the mower.  The display model had a sign in it saying “Was $399.00, now $379.00”.  Bunk!  Everywhere that sold the TB86K XP and the Lowes web site listing for their version all said the price was regularly $379.00.  I was of a mind to tell the department worker who fetched a cart and got the mower down off the shelf for me that I knew better: it is NOT on sale, that is the manufacturers stipulated price.  But, he did get the box down without my assistance, so I left him alone.  No sense picking on him, he probably doesn’t make those decisions anyway.

At the check-out line we ran into a couple of old friends we haven’t seen in a long while, so we stood around outside for a time and got caught up.

We got the boxed mower in the back of the truck and headed for home… well, the workshop.

lawn mowerOne of the cool things about this mower is that it came fully assembled, so I didn’t have to spend half the afternoon bolting on wheels, handles and chutes.  It even had a quart of oil in the box.  All I had to do was straighten out the handles, tighten a couple of wing nuts and pour in the oil.  (I did have to supply my own gas)

It took two pulls to get it started the first time.  Any time I shut it down thereafter, it restarted on one pull.  It mowed through even the deepest thickest grass (over the septic field) like a bull at Paloma, climbed the hills like a mountain goat and handled easily – once I got re-trained to using a rear wheel drive mower.  I had not realized how accustomed I had become to turning around by pushing down on the handle to raise the front wheels (the driven wheels on the old Craftsman) off the ground instead of messing with the drive engage lever.  Doing that on this one didn’t work!  But once I got retrained, the mower and I worked very well together.

I even tried to “brush hog” Mom’s jungle – a steeply sloped, over-grown area under a big willow tree in front of her house.  Right job, wrong tool – I abandoned that effort quickly.

I got the whole yard mowed in one session.  It took a couple of hours.  Using the Craftsman I usually had to split it into two sessions or by the time I was done I’d feel like I was going to die, or more like I had died but hadn’t fallen over yet.  Today I was tuckered out, but not dead.  I took the mower back to the workshop, let it cool off while I sat down and had an energy drink.  Then I cleaned the mower off and put it away in the shed.

To make room for it I had to do *something* with a wash tub full of coal.  Don’t ask me why I have a wash tub of coal, we’d be here all night.  So I divied up the coal into 4 plastic buckets (one was the one I got at Wilton Springs earlier today) that could be tucked away into smaller spaces, leaving the large space previously occupied by the wash tub for the mower.

Next up I took the sprayer full of herbicide and put it where it would do some good: the driveways, walk ways, around decorative stone, etc.

Then I got out the weed whacker and trimmed up around all the trees, under the bushes.  I chopped back The Jungle some and cleaned out the ditch along side the driveway up to our workshop.  Then I cleaned up the whacker and put it back away.

While taking the truck back home I stopped at Mom’s house to pick up the tape of last nights NASCAR race and put in another for tonight’s race.  This is our primary entertainment on weekends.

Then it was back home, get cleaned up and changed into some lounging clothes in preparation for Marie’s home made Racin’ Pizza and our race tape.  A good evening spent together enjoying something we both like.

I do realize that for some of you Type A personalities, this is just a normal Saturday, but here in the mountains folks don’t usually cram quite so much into a single day.  Heck, some folks don’t cram that much into a single week!  So I feel I’ve gotten a good bit done today, it all went very well, I am feeling grateful for God’s blessings and wanted to share.  Thanks for indulging me!


The Troy-Bilt walk behind was purchased in April of 2009.  It is now October of 2014 and that mower is still running strong.  I do the usual annual maintenance, and it has needed no major repairs.  I’m very pleased with it.  I have purchased a riding mower to do the majority of the main lawn, but the walk-behind still serves well for the steeper slopes.