On a route through some of the nation's most wild and scenic places, the University of Michigan Solar Car Team hopes to bring back its sixth consecutive victory in the American Solar Challenge.
The 8-day, 1,900-mile race starts July 30 at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. Traversing seven states, this year's route stops at nine national parks and historic sites in conjunction with the 100-year anniversary celebration of U.S. National Park Service. It ends at Wind Cave National Park in North Dakota on Aug. 6.
Reigning national champions, U-M has won the biennial race eight times since the team formed 26 years ago. It's one of 23 collegiate teams that will compete this year – all of which must contend with unpredictable Midwestern weather along the way.
"We have a young race crew full of passionate, motivated Michigan students ready to show off how fast Aurum can drive," said team leader Shihaab Punia, a junior studying computer engineering.
The team will run a modified version of Aurum, the car that finished fourth in one of the tightest World Solar Challenges of all time in 2015. The sleek, four-wheeler has a catamaran-style carbon fiber body. Its silicon solar array charges a high-performance lithium-ion battery that pulls extra power from regenerative braking. Now, it also sports a "wing."
Students had to make some changes to the car to comply with American race rules. That included adding more signal lights and making the horn louder, as well as installing a strobe light in the back that flashes when the battery hits performance limits. They also had to adjust the vehicle's profile.
"The biggest, most visually obvious modification we've had to make is the bump on the side of the car, in order to comply with the 'crush zone' regulations," said Sarah Zoellick, a sophomore studying business who is the team's business director.
The original Aurum sported an "elbow bulge" because of the extreme right-side position of the driver. Because the American race requires there be more space between the driver and the side of the car, the team was forced to expand the bulge into a foam-filled, carbon fiber bumper. To make it as aerodynamic as possible, they shaped it like a wing.
While the wing gets Aurum up to code, in some ways, it will drag the team down. It makes the car slightly larger than race limits. So the students will incur a 7-minute penalty each racing day, which adds up to about an hour at the end of the race. While that might sound like a lot, if this team performs like previous teams, it's unlikely to matter. U-M has been known to finish by a 10-hour margin.
"This year, we're fighting a bit of an uphill battle going into the race with a car that was not necessarily designed for this set of regulations. The wing is a double whammy for us, aerodynamically and penalty-wise," Punia said. "But we're confident we can overcome both. We've done more testing than any other team. The competition will be tight, but I believe we can come out on top."
To prepare, this young team – fully half of which are rising sophomores – ran two mock races. The students took Aurum through Michigan's lower peninsula, and also along the full 1,975 miles of the actual race route.
"The crew learned a great deal about what it's like to race and what it takes to be prepared," Zoellick said. "We also learned a lot about race procedures, timing and how to work together as a race crew – knowing when and how to help so that things run as smoothly as possible."
The pressure is on, the students say. U-M has held the national title for a decade.
"We're building off of a great foundation from 2015, with a great new team. I think we have a really good shot at keeping the trophy in Ann Arbor," said crew chief Perry Benson, a rising junior in mechanical engineering.
The U-M Solar Car Team is comprised of students from a wide variety of disciplines. Students work together to engineer and race a completely solar-powered vehicle. The team has a 26-year history including eight championships in the American Solar Challenge, and five international third-place finishes in the World Solar Challenge. Nearly 20 students will be on the race crew for the upcoming contest. Major sponsors include Altair, Ford, General Motors, IMRA, Michigan Engineering, Intel and Siemens PLM Software.