9 Days in Sun for Solar Cars


With nine days and 2,247.5 miles behind it, the M-pulse, its driver tanned, grimy and smiling, crossed the finish line in Claremont.

And moments after driver and University of Michigan student Jason Kramb won the American Solar Challenge, he declared he was ready for the next challenge.

"We'll see if we can win the [World Solar Championship in Australia]," said Kramb, looking like he had spent days on a beach instead of behind the wheel and under the hood.

The race, which is the world's longest for solar-powered vehicles, began July 15 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Drivers of the 28 solar cars raced from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The M-Pulse's winning time was 56 hours, 10 minutes and 46 seconds. It finished 80 minutes and 6 seconds ahead of the competition.

The flat, thigh-high, single-driver cars reached speeds as high as 70 mph on the course that followed as much of the old Route 66 as possible.

In Wednesday's leg, which started in Barstow, the cars hit some of their top speeds on Interstate 15, coming down the Cajon Pass among the tractor trailers.

"Sixty-five down Cajon Pass gets pretty hairy," said Don Harrington, who drove the eighth-place car for Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana. The 21-year-old is a 1998 graduate of Claremont High School.

Michigan's victory was especially sweet for the 18-member team, which almost didn't make it to the starting line. Michigan engineering students had to rebuild the car after it crashed into a ditch during a test run in Oklahoma three weeks before the race.

"I can't believe we're even here," said Nader Shwayhat, a fifth-year engineering student and M-Pulse's team captain.

Michigan's was one of the best-organized, best-funded and most experienced teams in the contest, said Gary Schmitz of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one of the race sponsors.

Nearly all of the teams have been preparing since the last race, two years ago. It is a race that is won as much by strategy and organization as it is by technology, said Stephen Director, dean of Michigan's College of Engineering.

His students were able to outrun a thunderstorm in New Mexico that caught then-leader Missouri-Rolla.

One of Michigan's four support vehicles had pushed ahead of the race's leader with sophisticated weather-mapping capability that allowed the team to decide when to slow down to save battery power for cloudier stretches.

After its pre-race mishap, the team sent an advance car to paint around potholes so they could avoid them.

It was all part of the learning experience, Director said.

"It's not just engineering. You can't just build something. There's raising money, there's PR, you have to sell it, you have to market it. It is teamwork. This is teamwork," Director said as he waved at hugging members of the Michigan team.

The U.S. Department of Energy is the main sponsor of the race for college students. The competition stimulates efforts to find solutions to energy and transportation problems, officials said.

Organizers are planning a race in 2003 but have yet to pick a route. With teams from Canadian universities in this year's competition, the next race may travel north of the border, they said.

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