Teenagers turn up the warmth in annual solar car race
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At the annual Solar Car Challenge, the sun is your friend — even when that means a rail in 152-degree warmth.
High schools from across the country — and beyond — packaged up four days of competition Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway. While the day’s official high hit one hundred one degrees, racers encountered beyond-sweltering temperatures on the track and in the pit.
They took the warmth in stride, tho’, because a cloudy day could ruin a shot at racing cars that take months — sometimes more than a year — to build.
“We call this ‘the brain sport,'” said volunteer Matthew Tunnell, who competed in the challenge via high school. “It’s weirdly grueling, and it’s all about thinking ahead.”
There’s also slew of joy. Each car shows a bit of the team’s personality — bright green to match school colors at St. John’s School in the Bahamas, or a horn lifted from an ice juice truck for Liberty Christian School’s entry.
“This team is your family for two weeks every year,” said latest graduate Ty White, Legal.
White’s team, Greenville High School’s Metal Lions, competed in two of the three divisions — the classic division and the electric-solar powered division. Students can also rival in an advanced division.
While Greenville’s team has competed for several years and even has a class dedicated to the task, some schools have newer teams, like St. John’s School, and may not have built-in time to work on their cars.
St. John’s car, the Green Lightning, almost missed the competition after a shipping mishap from Nassau to Florida.
The challenge’s founder and director, Lehman Marks, says that while mishaps happen, that’s part of the practice.
“We’re training them the capability to fail,” he said.
While “challenge” is in the name of the race, Marks says he doesn’t view it as a competition, but rather a “cooperation.”
Tunnell said teams often help each other. More experienced teams will give advice to newer ones and lend a mitt, he said, or in some cases, a spare battery or two.
“One year, we had two teams in the lead. On the last day of the race, one team lost a tire,” Tunnell said, “and the other team helped fix it with just hours left in the race, while they could have just gone and secured a win for themselves.”
Out of the twenty nine schools that competed, nineteen are in Texas, including All Saints Episcopal School in Fort Worth, Southwest High School in San Antonio and Harmony Science Academy in El Paso.
On even-numbered years the teams trek cross-country. Next year, competitors will race from Fort Worth to San Jose, Calif., just on solar power.
The Solar Car Challenge, Marks said, is the only solar-powered race for high school students in the world. Some students, like those from the Bahamian school, traveled over a thousand miles to join the competition. Schools from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Canada have competed in the past.
Marks believes the challenge offers a unique chance to get high schoolers excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
“We’re hoping to mold these kids,” he said. “How can a teacher make a real influence on a student’s life if something like this only takes two months out of the year?”
Beyond the technical abilities, Marks hopes students build up life abilities, such as public speaking and fundraising.
Many teams said that the best part is the camaraderie.
“You go through this fight for six to seven months out of the year,” White said, “and then you get to the track and realize everyone’s been going through the same fight as you.”