Sunrayce 99: Or, Trouble-Shooting from D. C. to Orlando, June 1999

(Reprinted by permission from Paydirt, the students' newspaper.)

New Mexico Tech's Sunrayce '99 team members didn't take the checkered flag at this summer's solar-energy, collegiate racing competition, but they still came home winners.

Where other teams had bigger budgets and professional mechanics, Tech students had the experience of a real hands-on project, with educational benefits beyond the nuts and bolts of the solar car itself.

Not that nuts and bolts weren't important.

Tech's team was towing its entry, the Corona, from a preliminary event inWest Virginia to Washington, D.C., where the race was to begin, when one of the hinges on the top of the car broke. The latch failed and the top flipped over, destroying many solar-collecting cells and breaking parts of the body.

"The team was up all night, getting the car in shape so it could race," said Dr. Richard Ortega, chief of Tech's Office for Advancement, and the only crew member to have been involved in all four Sunrayce competitions since Tech started participating in 1993. The race is held every two years.

"They had to use what materials were on hand -- some two-by-fours and quite a bit of ingenuity. By morning, the car could race, but with only 40 percent of its array functional. Where other schools were collecting 600 watts of power, we were collecting about 300, so we couldn't be competitive," he said.

Tech's Corona crossed the finish line in Orlando, Fla. one car ahead of last place, but the team already had won a key competition.

Sunrayce 99 started out with 64 accepted proposals, meaning these plans were deemed adequate to produce a vehicle capable of a cross-country, solar energy race.

Prior to the main event and held in West Virginia was something called "scrutineering," where the cars were, quite literally, put through their paces. "Fifty-two cars showed up," said Ortega. "Only 29 qualified." Among the schools whose teams didn't make the scrutineering cut were Texas A&M, the University of Texas at Austin, Florida A&M, the University of Colorado at Denver, and Cal Poly San Obispo -- all recognized as good engineering schools.

"We were the last team to qualify," Ortega said. "But a lot of teams wished they were in our position."

Ortega said Tech had enough money to build a good car with a budget in excess of $100,000 (even though the average solar racing team spent close to five times that amount).

The university was the team's primary sponsor, as well as the New Mexico Tech Research Foundation and the Student Association. Jack and Bebe Kruppenbach (Class of 51) were the largest individual supporters, and over 200 alumni, staff and friends backed the effort. First State Bank and the City of Socorro were among the local sponsors.

While a bigger budget might have been nice to have, money wasn't the main problem. It was time.

"It's a very complex, detailed project," Ortega said, "and students try to do it in their free time while working on a degree at Tech."

Team leader Matt Channon and faculty sponsor Dr. Ken Minschwaner agreed.

Channon said he averaged 50 hours a week on Sunrayce, approaching 100 hours per week just before the race. He graduated in May and now works for Sandia Labs.

"If I had to do it over again, I would probably put in less time, but make sure the time I put in was put to better use," he said. "Countless hours were spend sanding, and by contracting out mold construction, and making the design simpler, the time could have been spent doing more worthwhile things.

"I also learned a great deal about the importance of fund-raising, to make designs practical first, and innovative second, and how to organize one of these projects correctly," Channon said.

Minschwaner, a professor of physics at Tech, actually took over the reins as the university's Sunrayce faculty sponsor right before the 1997 race, but this year's competition was the first he witnessed.

If asked to return as sponsor for the 2001 event, Minschwaner said he would serve if asked, but next time around would insist on some firm deadlines.

"I'd make sure the car was done way ahead of time. This year, things kept getting pushed back," he said. This, he said, doesn't mean just getting things finished in time, but finished way ahead of time, and taking into account the human nature side of people to

Minschwaner said he was "drafted" as the team faculty advisor, and was told it wouldn't take up too much of his time. "You'll just need to sign some things," he said he was told.

Well, he found out that being Sunrayce advisor was "more involved than being advisor to the skateboard club. . . you put in as much time as you can and hope for the best."

It's like teaching, he said. "It can consume all of your time if you're real conscientious about it -- and there's always more you can do."

There were, to be sure, other lessons learned and some intrinsic benefits besides.

"Companies that sponsor Sunrayce -- such as General Motors and the Department of Energy -- heavily recruit Sunrayce participants," said Ortega. "They see its value in the science and the commitment. Even if they're not sponsors, some future employer is going to look positively at a student's Sunrayce experience," he said.

Some students, he added, postpone graduation just to be a part of Sunrayce.

"This is one of those projects that demonstrates the strength of a Tech education in a very tangible way," Ortega said. "There's the car itself: You can see engineering mechanics in the suspension, electrical engineering in the array design . . . this is something that can capture the imagination of the general public."

The project also allowed Tech students to use their own imaginations.

"The students did the work -- it was their project," said Minschwaner. Other school advisors served as team foremen and managed every detail. "They clearly were involved in a lot of the construction and details of the car.

"In our case, it was in essence a student-conceived-and-built project. . .as advisor, my role sometimes was to bring some wild ideas back down to earth. We were careful not to spend time and money on something that was way out there," Minschwaner said.

Some teams even had full-time mechanics -- "machine shops on wheels," he said. "Our students had a much more difficult time. They did it themselves, but they also got more out of it. On some teams, students were no more than go-fers."

To Minschwaner, the most important lesson students learned was how to trouble-shoot, "a trait I think is very important in the real world -- you don't get a lot of experience in that in course and lab work."

Students learned to improvise, he said, "to fashion parts out of whatever we had on hand." They also learned how to work as a team, and gleaned insight into the importance of planning and design.

"If they'd like me to stay involved, there's a good chance I'd do it again, because I learned a lot, too," said Minschwaner. He had the opportunity to see first-hand "the whole enterprise of racing solar-energy cars, and what it takes to be among the top three or five.

"I also learned how to make something like this succeed with students of diverse skills, backgrounds and motivation."

What about Channon? "I learned in events such as this, you never have enough money, enough time, or enough people to help you to get things the way you want them, so you should take that into account when you plan things out, rather than hoping things will change," he said.

What advice would he give to Tech's Sunrayce 2001 team? "I'd tell them to keep it simple, go fund-raising like gangbusters, and to keep it fun."

It's 5:30 in the morning, somewhere between Washington, D.C. and Orlando, Fla. Richard Ortega doesn't hit the snooze bar on his alarm clock; there's no time for an extra 10-minutes of sleep.

He climbs into his car and begins to scout around for a 24-hour market. New Mexico Tech's Sunrayce student team members, meanwhile, are on their way to get the Corona to either point it toward the sun, or do what they can to keep it dry.

Once he finds his market, Ortega buys breakfast: orange juice, bagels, cream cheese, donuts ("they really like donuts") and lunch fixings -- Kaiser rolls, deli meats and cheeses, fruit and trail mix.

One of his Sunrayce jobs is to make and pack sack lunches for the team: two sandwiches, fruit and snacks for every student go into ice chests, along with water, Gatorade and sodas. Each day of racing takes about eight hours, including charging and towing time. Dinner is eaten "out": usually fast food, said Ortega. "Sometimes we'd go to a nicer place, but generally, we get fast food because of the time element."

Ortega also is in charge of finding lodging for the night -- either in an inexpensive hotel, or sometimes in the homes of Tech alumni families. "We typically check into a hotel after 9 p.m. when the solar cars are impounded for the night," Ortega said.

He also drives the lead vehicle, and serves as the official team photographer. "It makes for some very long days," he said.

The race itself spans 10 days, but the team is on the road for twice that long. "It's a lot of fun," said Ortega. "It's also a lot of work."