No. 1 in the sun: UMR’s Solar Car Team

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On January 27, 2004

Last July, UMR’s Solar Car Team won the American Solar Challenge, a grueling, 2,300-mile trek along historic Route 66. UMR’s Solar Miner IV shattered solar racing records on its way to becoming the 2003 American Solar Challenge Champions. A chronicle of the trip, excerpted from the fall 2003 issue of UMR’s alumni magazine, the MSM-UMR Alumnus.

We are the champions! UMR Solar Car Team member Scott Essner, ME’03, embraces teammate Srinivas "Jack" Jakkidi, MS CSci’03, after their team won the 2003 American Solar Challenge last July.

Perched on its tripod, its rows of solar panels pointed toward the sun, the shell of Solar Miner IV makes a decent shade umbrella. But it provides no shelter from the unforgiving desert heat on this 111-degree day in Barstow, Calif. UMR’s Solar Car Team is eight days and nearly 2,200 miles into the American Solar Challenge, a grueling cross-country race that has taken the sleek, sun-driven vehicle from the heart of Chicago to the searing Mojave Desert.

The car was the first — and so far only — of the 20 American Solar Challenge competitors to make it across the desert. The team dashed 435 miles, from northwestern Arizona to Barstow, on this day, the longest leg of the 10-day race. Now, team members huddle beneath the shade of their car’s perched canopy — no relief from the heat radiating from the blacktop — for one last pep talk from team leader Sundara Srinivasan. The car’s foam-and-Kevlar body, the lightest in the competition, has held up well over the course of this race, but now it is showing signs of wear. The cracks in the body have been pasted over with strips of black carbon fiber and sanded smooth for aerodynamic purposes. But the bandages, while effective and practical, are not pretty. And Solar Miner IV must look pretty for its big appearance in Claremont, Calif., in a couple of days. This will be as close to Hollywood as the team and its star vehicle will get. It’s almost show time.

"It was one and a half years ago that we told the dean (Bob Mitchell of the School of Engineering) that we’d win," says Srinivasan, who was on the 2001 team that finished second to the University of Michigan. "Now we are just 90 miles away from doing that. So, let’s show him that we can do what we said we could do."

Another veteran of the 2001 race, Scott Essner, ME’03, has a slightly different take on that conversation with the dean. "Sundar, I don’t think you got that quite right," he says. "One and a half years ago, the dean told us we would win."

Team members laugh, then Essner turns serious. "Two years ago, something we did that really impressed the dean was when we went ahead of the University of Michigan guys." Veteran members nod in remembrance; rookies nod in recognition of this bit of solar car lore: the way UMR passed up first-place Michigan for the final stretch of the 2001 race to cross the finish line first in Claremont. "But I don’t want the same thing to happen to us. So stay focused. We’re almost there."

Next, Srinivasan lays out the plans for the upcoming day — a day of rest before UMR takes Solar Miner IV the final, 91-mile leg of the American Solar Challenge. The team will not camp out, as it has done most nights throughout the race; instead, members will sleep in actual motel rooms. "And we’ll get to take showers," the team leader proclaims to a chorus of cheers.

"Now," he asks, "who wants to go to the beach?"

Several team members’ hands shoot up. "Me! Me!" the weary students shout.

"Now, who wants to stay and paint the body?"

Neal Essner, Scott’s younger brother, and Kerry Poppa, the team’s media spokesperson and president-elect, volunteer immediately — and even more enthusiastically than those anticipating a trip to the beach. Why, after driving 2,200 grueling miles, camping alongside desert roads and in Wal-Mart parking lots, working long into the night on a car most team members have already poured hundreds of hours into, would anyone pass up a trip to the beach — especially just to paint over the black bandages on the vehicle’s body?

"What can I say?" says the younger Essner. "We’re solar car guys."

Revving up for the Mother Road

In all, eight team members stay behind to get Solar Miner IV ready for its big day in the sun. The rest head off to Santa Monica Pier and what is for many team members their first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. Stephanie Maiden, a senior chemistry major from Hannibal, Mo., is one of those. "I’d never been outside the Midwest before this race," says Maiden, who was captured by New Mexico’s desolate beauty. "It’s been a pretty cool experience."

Santa Monica Pier is where historic U.S. Route 66 officially ends, but the planners of the American Solar Challenge — billed as a trip along America’s Mother Road — decided to draw the finish line in Claremont, Calif. They figured the route would be grueling enough for the vehicles without sending them into the insanity of Los Angeles’ freeways.

And grueling it is. The route from Chicago to Claremont took the 20 entries in the 2003 American Solar Challenge through a range of driving conditions. Entangling traffic in Chicago. Sticky humidity in the Missouri Ozarks. Suspension-rattling roads in Oklahoma. The mountainous climb into New Mexico. The long stretch past sagebrush and barren mountains into the Mojave Desert, with temperatures hot enough to pop a solar car’s slender tires as though they were toy balloons.

Even getting into the ASC is a tough chore. Several of the teams planning to enter the race — including the 2001 champs from the University of Michigan — failed to pass muster during "scrutineering," the pre-race qualification round. Some 40 teams originally planned to enter the 2003 event, and some well known schools, such as MIT and Georgia Tech, didn’t even make it to the starting line.

To the finish line

Back in Barstow, Calif., it’s 8:30 a.m., time to head for the starting line.

Wes Day, Russel Molyneaux, Karl Neuman and Brendan Shaughnessy carry the canopy, while other team members roll the car to the pole position. Scott Essner, the driver for the day, strolls out from behind the trailer. Sporting a shabby goatee, he’s wearing a sleeveless black t-shirt that shows off his farmer’s tan, blue basketball shorts and dirty Nikes. (All drivers wear black to eliminate glare in the cockpit.) Walking toward the parking lot, Essner looks a bit like Maximus, Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator, entering the Colosseum.

"Let’s do this," he says, smiling, and prepares to strap himself in to the driver’s seat.

The night before, team strategist Srinivas "Jack" Jakkidi, MS CSci’03, whose duties include selecting the day’s driver ("In Jack we trust" is the unofficial team motto), assembled the four drivers to have them draw straws — actually, he cut Zip Ties for the occasion — for the privilege of driving across the finish line. But Neal Essner had already planned to defer to big brother, and drivers Nolte and Shaughnessy followed suit. "I was going to hand it off to Scott anyway if I drew the short straw, because it’s his last year," says Shaughnessy. "He’s really into the team. He deserves it."

While Essner situates himself in the driver’s seat, Srinivasan breaks out the team’s good luck charm — a one-eyed Japanese pirate, painted on a small pumpkin — and presents it to the crew for the daily ritual. Each rubs the pirate’s head for luck. (Advisor John Tyler’s wife, Meiko, who is Japanese, has a niece who first suggested the pirate symbol in 1999. The team took the mascot on that summer’s race, which UMR won.) As Essner straps in, Shaughnessy barks out commands — "Bring it down slow; keep bringing it down" — as Day, Hall, Molyneaux and Neuman place the canopy on the chassis.

At 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time Wednesday, July 23, 2003, Solar Miner IV pulls out of Barstow toward its date with destiny.

Eyes on the prize

The sidewalks of The Village, a section of downtown Claremont designated as the ASC finish line, is bustling with thousands of solar car fans and supporters from the various schools. Principia is well represented by alumni and parents. UMR also has a strong presence, especially in the form of School of Engineering Dean Bob Mitchell, who paces up and down the street in anticipation of his team’s arrival. When Solar Miner IV rolls down Claremont’s Yale Avenue at 11:39 a.m. PDT, the team jogging alongside the vehicle, Mitchell greets them with wave after enthusiastic wave of the checkered flag. The car cruises to its designated stop, and TV crews, photojournalists, alumni and onlookers surround the car as the team lifts the canopy.

The 2003 American Solar Challenge champions arrive in fine fashion — and with a cumulative time (51 hours, 47 minutes and 39 seconds) that blows the doors off the University of Michigan’s 2001 record of 56:10:46.

"I haven’t realized what we’ve done yet," says Scott Essner. "It hasn’t hit me." But reality hits Essner and the others a couple of hours later, as the team poses before the cameras with the Wilson Cup, the ASC trophy.

Dining on chicken, fruit and veggies, homemade chili (courtesy of Scott T. Porter, Phys’55, and his wife Joyce) and plenty of the team’s favorite elixir — Mountain Dew — the team celebrates with Mitchell, several alumni and other UMR officials during a picnic that evening. Porter, who opened his home, swimming pool and hot tub to the 2001 team, does so again. The grateful, weary team takes him up on the offer. But three of the members — Scott Essner, Jakkidi and Maiden — can’t relax just yet. They have an early-morning appointment to appear live on NBC’s "The Today Show." Kerry Poppa, the team’s media spokesperson throughout the race, will be there too. But after logging countless minutes talking with reporters on the team’s cell phone, he’s willing to forgo an appearance on national TV. "I’ll sit this one out," he says.

Coming home, again

After more than two weeks on the road, the UMR team was ready to head home. "No more scenic routes for us," Poppa told The Kansas City Star. But Solar Miner IV had one more trip to make — a "victory lap" through the city of Rolla for its, and the team’s, official homecoming.

Jason Nolte, the sophomore from Memphis, Tenn., with a taste for muscle cars, steered Solar Miner IV through the jubilant hometown crowd on Monday, July 28. "It’s an honor, it’s an experience, and it’s a ton of fun," Nolte told the Associated Press. "Just give me a dictionary and I’ll name off all the amazing words that can describe this."

For the team veterans — team leader Srinivasan, team veteran Hall, new alumni Jakkidi and Scott Essner — the end is bittersweet. Their solar racing days are behind them. "In 10 days, I’m going to have to start a whole new life," says Jakkidi, who now works as an applications engineer for National Instruments in Austin, Texas.

"He’s going to have to get a whole new wardrobe," says Maiden. "All his clothes have epoxy stains on them from working on the car."

Nolte, Poppa and several other younger members of the 2003 ASC Champions are already setting their sights on 2005.

"Even during the race, we were looking at a lot of things to work on," Poppa says. "We’ve got a pretty big list of things for the next car. You’re going to be impressed."

Related Links

American Solar Challenge
UMR Solar Car Team

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On January 27, 2004. Posted in Research