University solar car team takes 4th consecutive national win

BY KAITLYN BYRNE
For the Daily
Published July 22, 2012

The University’s solar car team set a new record in the American Solar Challenge on Saturday, crossing the finish line in St. Paul, Minn. 10 hours and 18 minutes before any other competitor.

The team delivered the University’s seventh national championship in the event, which has been held 11 times since 1990.

Since their three-hour lead recorded at Monday’s halfway-point stop in Ann Arbor, the University’s team managed to gain seven more hours on their opponents over the course of the week.

Engineering senior Jordan Feight, the team’s race manager, said he communicated between divisions throughout the race to make sure they were hitting their time marks and credited a team effort for the victory.

“Near Erie, there were torrential downpours where a few teams got stuck, and we powered through when essentially no other team was able to do it,” Feight said. “This was a huge advantage for the rest of the race as well.”

Because of the threat of inclement weather, many teams had to accept penalties for putting their cars into trailers until the next stop, while others had to stop driving altogether.

“Our strategy was that we always knew what was going on and were never caught off guard,” Feight said. “That allowed us to run the most optimal race we could run.”

Feight added that the team always found a way to keep moving and didn’t let their lead inflate their ego.

“The team was always performing well,” he said. “We started just as if we were behind every day.”

The team began designing and building the car in June of 2010, while the past few months have been spent ensuring the solar car’s reliability on the road by running a mock race over the entire route.

“Not every team does (the mock race),” Feight said, “(But) it’s extremely helpful for figuring out any problems we have with the car before the race and getting out last-minute kinks.”

Engineering sophomore Rohan Shah drove the car to its last stop in St. Paul, where he said he and the rest of the team ran out of their cars to celebrate the University’s seventh national championship.

“It was an amazing experience,” Shah said. “It felt awesome.”

Shah said the race was not all fun and games. He said there were five and a half hours of difficult driving through turbulent weather with strategists advising drivers by earpiece.

He added that even though he’s practiced driving the car in the rain before, the low visibility caused by the hour and a half of heavy rain they drove through Saturday made parts of the ride particularly difficult.

“I have to take more precaution to make sure the tires are on the road at all times, take turns slowly and think about a lot more things when driving in the rain (as opposed to) driving on dry roads,” Shah said.

With no windshield wipers on the car, Shah said he had to almost totally rely on his chase car to tell him to turn slightly left or right or to slow down for oncoming traffic.

“They’re talking to me every couple of minutes — sending status checks and asking how everything is going,” Shah said. “I owe them a lot because they’re the ones that protected me on the road and made sure that I drove properly throughout.”

Shah said staying on the road throughout the race was the trade-off he faced for not driving as fast as he would’ve liked Saturday, while a lot of teams were trying to go, or break, the speed limit.

By Saturday morning, though, speed was hardly a concern for the University's team.

“We knew we would win the race today,” Shah said. “We just did what we usually do — just get to the finish line first.”

He said the team is now looking forward to the World Solar Challenge in Australia, where Shah recalled that they’ve only manage to come in third place in the past.

“Next year we want to make sure we actually win it,” he said. “We are a capable team — capable of being the best.”