WORTHINGTON -- The Worthington Event Center parking lot was full of cars Friday afternoon, and while this alone may not seem like anything out of the ordinary, it certainly was.
The cars themselves are what made the circumstances different, as many of them were powered by solar energy.
The Solar Car Challenge, an organization based in Texas, made its sixth and final-night stop on Friday before it finishes today near Minneapolis. The seven-day race began Sunday in Fort Worth, Texas, and it consists of high school students driving 787.1 miles in a car powered by the sun.
The founder of the event, Dr. Lehman Marks, said that he came up with the idea for it in 1990.
“I wanted to get high school students out of the classroom and doing something that was practical, that was interesting, that they would want to do,” he said. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to build a car? Wouldn’t you like to drive it at a NASCAR facility that holds 200,000 people? Wouldn’t you like to power a car by solar cells?’ This was 1990.”
While his idea had never been done before, he had many people interested in participating.
“People were very excited about it and this thing was booming,” Marks said.
He created an educational program to help individuals learn about engineering for a solar car and where to find parts to build one. Despite the initial help that the organization gives participants, Marks said it doesn’t give anyone parts or instructions on how to construct a solar-powered car.
“We don’t have kits,” he said. “They have to come up with their own plan. We teach them how to talk about it, how to fundraise for it.
“We don’t want people to give them money. We want them to go out and get the community involved and get them to invest in it because then they care about what they’ve done.”
The education program started in 1993, and since then more than 45,000 people have gone through it. The first race took place in 1995, and it has occurred every year following, with the exception of 1996.
Marks said he has been thrilled to see the organization stretch around the country and overseas.
“We had three teams in that first event,” he said. “Today I have 161 schools in 32 states, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, the Bahamas. We’re going to have a team from Britain come over next year.”
The race is hosted every other year, and on the off years, a closed track event takes place at Texas Motor Speedway. Prior to each race, candidates endure five days of qualifying tests, called scrutineering, at Texas Motor Speedway before embarking from on a cross-country journey.
The finish of the race is in a different location every year, but some in the past have included California, Colorado, Indiana, New York and Florida.
Twenty-one teams made it to the Texas Motor Speedway, but through the extensive scrutineering process and other complications along the route, only 18 remain.
Some groups have used the same vehicle for 15 years in a row, while others make a different one each year. One group in particular has a $70,000 motor in their solar car, but a group from Durango, Colo., called “Team Energy Audacity,” spent only $20,000 on its entire car.
“We didn’t qualify at the Texas Motor Speedway,” said Susan Kroes, mother of one of the group members. “We had to chase the race for two days, and we had a couple significant issues to correct.”
Despite their initial struggles, Kroes said the strong community within the race helped them to reach their goals.
“Here’s the cool thing about this organization,” she said. “We didn’t have the money to replace the batteries. They mysteriously appeared. They were delivered anonymously as a gift to the boys.”
Team Energy Audacity consists of only two members, Domi Frideger and Dylan Kroes. This is unlike most other teams, which can have up to 14 people. Also, many of the teams have been participating in the event for between three and 18 years.
The pair started from scratch in February, and without any guidance from a teacher, they managed to build a car just in time to participate in the race.
“It was a lot of computer design and research on parts that we might use,” Dylan said. “We dedicated every day to working on it, around 80 hours each week.”
The primary requirements for the cars is that they must be road-worthy, which means that they need basic safety items such as signal lights, mirrors and a horn.
“It’s basically a car with solar panels on it,” summed-up Dylan.
Additionally, the cars must be able to travel at a minimum speed of 15 miles per hour, due to safety reasons. On a sunny day, Team Energy Audacity’s car cruises down the road at around 37 miles per hour.
Dylan and Domi take turns behind the wheel, and their daily journey takes around seven and a half hours to complete.
“It’s pretty exhausting a drive just because you’re so low to the ground,” said Dylan. “You have to basically watch for every single bump and avoid those. We switch off at lunch usually, so it’s four-hour driving shifts.”
The teams travel around 125 miles each day, and a winner is determined by which team traveled the most miles specifically in their solar car. The cars can be transported by trailer whenever they are in need of a charge.
Though the event is referred to as a race, Dylan said that he and his partner are solely glad to be participating.
“For us it’s more about getting mileage on the car,” he said. “It’s something we built from scratch. We have about 250 miles on it now, so it’s nice to see that it lasts that long running on solar.”
Marks echoed his statement by saying it’s really not about the race at all.
“It’s more of a cooperation, not a competition,” he said. “That’s our philosophy. If you get here, you’re a winner already.”
“Tomorrow’s going to be stressful, but for us it’s not really about winning,” said Dylan. “It’s about the learning experience and putting miles on the car.”