After a journey spanning 10 arduous days and 4,000 kilometres, a solar-powered car from the University of Michigan was the first to cross the finish line on July 22 in the 2008 North American Solar Challenge.The University of Michigan has dominated the event over the past nine years, taking the title five times. Its latest glide to victory was more of a whisper than a roar—the only sounds as the car crossed the finish line at the University of Calgary were the cheering of the crowd and tires on pavement.
The race began July 13 in Plano, Texas. Competitors made their way through Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota before crossing into Manitoba and heading west.
“A tremendous amount of work went into getting to this point. A lot of us have been on the team for over two years,” said a beaming Brooke Bailey, 23, who drove the blue-and-gold car for the final leg.
“The car has done everything we hoped for, and we’re here. We made it.”
The solar cars resemble flying saucers with tiny cockpits that drivers cram themselves into for six hours at a time, enduring no air conditioning and little ventilation.
“When we were down in Texas the heat was pretty bad. We are pretty cramped, and by the end you’re ready to get out,” Bailey said.
She said the University of Michigan has dominated the race because their design is so reliable.
“A lot of teams build a great car, but they haven’t been out on the road that much,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time and in many ways, by the time you get to the race … the hard part is over.”
The University of Waterloo was the top Canadian finisher. Its car, the Midnight Sun IX, rolled across in fourth place. It completed the final leg in the second-best time, but could not climb higher than fourth overall.
“I definitely can’t ask for anything more. This has been life altering for sure,” said Allen Mok, 19, who drove the final leg.
“After two weeks of non-stop work it felt really good to finally be across the finish line. We had a rough start at the beginning, but our car really came together in the middle of the race and we just tried to pick up the slack.”
Related: The University of Waterloo has developed quite a reputation in Canadian circles for successfully competing in international solar-car races.
The University of Calgary was the second Canadian team to reach the line, finishing sixth overall.
Twenty-four cars from the United States, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom began the race but only 15 made it to the final leg.
The competitors averaged between 80 and 100 km/hour during the race although some, like the German entry FH Bochum, were capable of speeds of up to 130.
Despite her team’s win, Michigan’s Bailey said she isn’t sure solar energy is the key to an oil-free future.
“I don’t see solar cars being the car of the future, but I think some hybrid could definitely come and that would be great for everyone.”
– With a report from The Canadian Press