The Hill Of Death Eats Solar Cars

HOPD1DSC_0149HOD2DSC_0154_2Problem #1: Straight out of the pits is the Mt Everest of solar car racing. The Hill. Most teams entering the track have to go in the opposite direction, turn around, and get a 200-yard running start to have a good chance of making it to turn #1. The problem is Pit Lane is lower than the track and the slope starts sooner (and shallower) for cars already running at good speeds. A few unlucky teams had to use the “all hands on deck” plan to push their cars up the hill. On the other side of the coin is the new entrant from Iran, which has fielded a compact, four-wheeled screamer that just vaults up the hill. They’ve got a simple, inexpensive array mounting systems that has us saying “That’s genius! Why didn’t WE think of that?!”

Problem #2: It’s been cloudy all day.

#1 plus #2 equals real trouble for most teams

NEWS UPDATE!!! SMVIII just passed battery protection, the last hurdle before track time! That makes this trip a success with two days still to go. A long time coming!

It’s been four years since S&T managed to qualify for, let alone pass dynamics (see previous post), and they did that today. At day’s end they’ve healed their achilles heel and are bound for the track.

And that, Gentle Readers, is MINER PROUD!

S&T Clears Dynamics Test/What’s A Few Cones Among Friends?

The Solar Miners squeezed through scrutineering with some difficulties, but got high enough marks to reach the dynamics (wet braking, figure eight, slalom and U-turn radius) events.

Drivers Austin Holmsley and Devin Valmores each had a crack at the events, and aside from radius turn, did just great. S&T has opted to eschew the 1,700-mile road race in favor of running a sound car only on the track, so judges waived that task, knowing that a track U-turn won’t ever happen.
Devin did manage to nail a cone on his first slalom run but sailed through the second time. For his efforts Devin will be inducted into the Order of the Orange Cone, and his teammates will paint a small orange cone alongside his canopy.

Letha And The Beetle

It’s not always about the car. Sometimes it’s the little side stories that add the human spice, memories that will bring a smile years from now.


Letha Young, Honorary Knight of St Patrick, has long been the Team Mom, student herder, fire warden, master chef, support van driver, and all-round great friend. And worthy adversary to a very stubborn beetle.

No YouTube video could ever capture the scene. Letha’s clean-up crew was sweeping up the garage when a large beetle emerged from some boxes. Letha took the broom and “guided” the beetle toward the door, giving it a final push well out into the pit lane. When the little hardshell finally stopped tumbling end-over-end he indignantly righted himself and headed right back to the garage as fast as his six legs could carry him.

As soon as he hits the threshold, Letha’s broom boots him some 20′ back out to the concrete, with the same results. This time Mr Beetle figured a diagonal approach might get him back under the cardboard so he headed for the corner. Nope.

By now students from two racing teams join the beetle-soccer game. No one wanted to step on the determined little critter, so they eventually grew tired of the game. By now Mr. B is probably back where he started.

Such is a day in the garage.

What’s A Solar Car Race Without Rain?

Endless 16-hour days are wearing on this crew, but out of the exhaustion has risen a quiet determination to get things done. No drama, no meltdowns, just an intense focus on the tasks at hand. Fix the battery management system, clear the dynamic tests, hit the track and start counting laps.
Whatever cars do run today, speeds and distance will suffer. Heavy clouds, stifling humidity and storms sweeping in from the west mean teams are scrambling to waterproof critical systems. Rain-X on the windshield, trash bags for wheel well covers, and prodigious amounts of duct tape to keep it all in place.

Lap counts should be low this year. Scrutineering has been extended as fewer than half the teams have passed all the requirements to get on the track. The important thing is the Miners have come together as an effective team, confident of doing the job.

It’s Too Blasted Late To Write A Coherent Story!

So we’ll go with lots of photos and a few wisecracks.

News? S&T qualified for the dynamic tests but still have a few bugs to work out.

blog7:17DSC_9784 Easy-open top, perfect for those hungry bears when you drive through Glacier National Park!

Transponder checking

The Mt. Everest of solar car racing looms in the distance.

Tired? Nah, I’m just resting my eyes.

Dancing while you work.

Blog7:17SUN_0823 Back to your garage.

blog7:17SUN_0855 Under the hood.

Blog7:17SUN_0933 Reflected light helps, too.


Today our great friend John Tyler celebrated who-knows-how-many-years on this earth.

He’s been everything to this (and every) design team. Water Jet Jedi, chauffeur, mechanic, mentor, cheer leader, cookie monster, friend, soldering demon, inventor, you name it. He’s been a champion of UMR/S&T solar cars for 20 years and it’s fair to say this team couldn’t have done without his guidance, patience and good humor.
John can’t be here in Texas this year, but we miss him terribly. The Solar Miners are planting his name on Solar Miner VIII in his honor.

hagrid-1p.s. Don’t know John? Your loss! He’s the Missouri Wizard, identical twin to, and inspiration for, fellow wizard Rubeus Hagrid.

That makes S&T students, staff, and faculty the luckiest people this side of The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Live long and prosper, John!. There’ll always be a place on the team for you!

Such a Pretty Day!

Yesterday was great.
SCT BLOGDSC_9171 Nice breeze, not a cloud in the sky, and you’re crawling in, under and around your solar car at a gleaming new concrete and asphalt race track. In 102 degree heat.

Welcome to Formula Sun Grand Prix near Austin, Texas.

It’s “scrutineering,” the three-day process of validating your sun-powered race car design. Over twenty international student teams are rekindling old (and starting new) friendships, borrowing everything from soup-to-nuts, reading and re-reading the rules, and making sure their two-year design/build project is ready.
Students put their heads together to make sure everyone knows what’s going on, tell a few jokes to cut the tension, check to see if your co-worker needs anything, and take the occasional break to study the process of team dynamics.
PrincipiaDSC_9122Then prove it to race officials before running the corners, hills and straightaways of a real Formula 1 race track. Whoever tallies the most laps in a Thursday/Friday/Saturday race, wins.

Today it’s showers, storms and a forecast of relatively mild 96 degrees. And yes, it’s the humidity.

The Need For Speed, and Design Team Fans Across the Country

Student design teams depend heavily on off-campus sources for money and material. Sponsors don’t just write a check or drop inner tubes in the mail, they remain extremely interested in what goes on year-round. The continued excellence (and sometimes heroic attempts to stave off disaster) of these design/build crews creates thrilling engineering/athletic drama, ripe for consumption by a tech-crazy nation.

Students often brag about the support that comes from individuals and commercial firms alike. As recipients of the largesse they SHOULD be excited, because little gets done without outside help. They also know they’ve made a good impression when sponsors start bragging about their association with S&T teams.

A few years back teams got an unexpected best life lessons from Coastal Enterprises, a California-based manufacturer of high-dollar tooling foam. A few years ago students reached out to Coastal for material donations, and were told “yes, we’ll help, but it comes with strings attached.”

Paraphrasing company owner Chuck Miller, “I didn’t build this company by myself, I had lots of help along the way. If you want our support you must agree that, when you are in a position to help others, you do so.” The Miners immediately honored the contract by sharing the goods with other S&T teams, and handing some off to up-and-coming teams from other universities. In doing so they learned that value comes in many forms; personal relationships, generosity, integrity, respect and character in business as in life. And that karma is real.

It’s Coastal that’s thrilled to be a part of S&T’s experiential learning programs. Chuck touts their association with our design teams, follows our adventures, and even drops in to see Miner teams (i.e., Solar House) that don’t use their products.

In their social media posts Coastal advances their code of business ethics through the connection with student design groups. In doing so they ensure that future generations of engineers will give back to Coastal by following Chuck’s example. And that, dear readers, is Karma.

p.s. Pick up the phone and call Chuck sometime. His entire crew is a blast to talk to, a sure sign of a great place to work.

Racing The Wheels Off!

We’ve repeatedly said this is a design event, but 40% of the overall score (and 100% of the bragging rights) is rooted in the endurance race.

WorkDSC_5941S&T Racing has been firing on all cylinders all year. They overcame blown engines, a shortage of suitable testing grounds, and even a door falling of their trailer on the highway. We talked about Saturday’s boring operations, and we’re told last month’s Michigan event was the same for S&T. No drama, no shouting or panic, just smooth teamwork and operations.

That’s not to say things didn’t go wrong. Possible fuel starvation cost the Miners some points in Friday’s autocross event, one that S&T usually dominates. Rather than panic these students relied on their teammates’ expertise and judgment to solve the problem. Was the fuel problem related to G-forces? Maybe, but the data (not the SWAG) called for a new fuel regulator and filter. Problem solved, like the seasoned professionals they are.

Over 60 international teams qualified for the endurance race, and SAE Invitational was hoping over 50% of the teams would complete the event; it’s that tough. Slower teams, usually the less-experienced schools, start in the morning and the excitement and performance builds when the perennial powers take the stage in the afternoon.

Asked about S&T’s endurance race strategy, driver Alex Mills said “we aren’t content with repeating last year’s 3rd place finish or just completing the endurance race. We have a great car and we want to go all out for the #1 spot. We made the design finals but 7th out of ten finalists left us only in 6th place overall prior to the endurance race. We have to go all out to win.”

WheelSUN_9228To the surprise of all, several of the powerhouse teams faired badly, leaving the door wide open for the Miners to climb in the rankings. Auburn, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) all had problems, ranging from a flat tire to a blown engine. Illinois slid to a halt when a rear wheel fell off, rolling all the way to the barriers in front of the grandstands. Mizzou played it a little safer and managed to keep running, even avoiding the Illini wheel rolling through the course.

Soon it was Kansas, Michigan, Texas A&M, and Missouri S&T fighting for dominance. The Aggies’ undersized car and the Wolverines’ massive winged machine were setting extremely fast laps, with Kansas just a second or two behind. Alex Mills was setting faster and faster lap times before handing the controls over to Caleb Alne to finish strong, maybe set the fastest lap, and win the race.
S&TEnduro1SUN_9309The car was doing great, but drama was unfolding elsewhere. Michigan’s massive (did we say really massive?) front wing began to crumple and drag the ground. They were black-flagged in yet inexplicably allowed to continue, to the great displeasure of the Kansas Jayhawks who kept getting stuck behind Big Blue’s now-slower beast. Their chance of winning the race was wiped out by another team’s problems. Such is racing, unfortunately.

S&T’s go-for-broke race strategy was paying dividends until, back in a far corner of the track, #3 suddenly stopped cold. The Miners’ right front wheel spokes had shattered, sending tire and rim spinning across the spot where the Illini had earlier suffered the same fate.
When the Miners towed the car back to the pits, there was no weeping, no crushed egos, no finger-pointing; just a steel-eyed look of determination to start the process over and come back next year.

And that, dear friends, is a success story, no matter what the final score says.


When Boring is Good

Boring is an old engineering term for “nothing goes wrong.” That means your project is well designed, well constructed, well tested, and you have a cohesive group of dedicated team members, advisors and sponsors.
John Tyler, patron saint of the S&T Solar Car Team, tells of the 1999 SunRayce when the team was bored to tears because nothing was going wrong. And they couldn’t have been happier, because boring was a side effect of winning the championship.
That’s where S&T Racing is this morning. They’ve bled the brakes, polished the body panels, ate donuts (sometimes at the same time), and kicked back to relax. It’s time for stories, jokes, talking to sponsors like NuCor, and hosting dozens of competitors who want to see what makes the car so good.
Boring2DSC_6070 A couple of design judges stopped by to debrief the Miners on the design evaluation, TEACHING the students about things to consider on future designs.

Boring is NOT what the SAE organizers had this morning. Overnight storms mauled the event infrastructure and the morning crew had their hands full. We hear that two porta-potties were blown out onto an active runway and ended up in the grass. When SAE staff went out to retrieve those all-important items, airport security wasn’t aware of the problem.

That was NOT boring.