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].

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