HASTINGS — The vehicles parked at Motorsport Park Hastings aren’t your typical race cars.
Some look more like small flying saucers on wheels with their sleek, aerodynamic designs.
Actually, they are solar-powered cars that are featured in the 2018 American Solar Challenge. Collegiate teams from around the globe brought their vehicles to Hastings Friday in hopes that their creations will be good enough to take part in the cross-country race.
Before teams can take off for a 1,700-mile journey that will start in Omaha and finish in Bend, Ore., the vehicles have to go through a process called scruitineering where each car is evaluated for safety and other functions.
That is what is taking place in Hastings through Monday. If teams meet the regulations, they move on to the Formula Sun Grand Prix, a race around the track at Motorsport Park. The race lasts 24 hours over a three-day period.
Teams that accumulate the minimum number of laps qualify for the cross-country race that begins July 14.
It is a long process, but not compared to the time spent developing each of the solar vehicles. Teams have been working on them for the past two years.
“It’s been hundreds of thousands of hours,” said Adrian Au, a student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
His team is one of the 24 registered and among the few from other countries participating.
The Ontario team towed their multi-seat solar car 20 hours from Canada to take part in the event. The 20-year-old Au will be one of the drivers. He said driving a vehicle he helped to create is surreal. It is also a different experience than handling a regular automobile.
“If you are traveling at typical road speeds, it’s pretty crazy. It’s a little louder in the inside because it’s not like a conventional car where it’s all padded up. You feel a little more connected with all the mechanics happening in the car,” he said. “Overall, this car is fairly steady to drive but maybe not as much acceleration or power as a typical car. It favors efficiencies.”
The solar-powered vehicles will have efficiencies tested during the 2018 American Solar Challenge that will follow the path of the Oregon Trail. The cars will be traveling on highways and secondary roads in Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon.
One of those hoping to be behind the wheel during that race if their car qualifies is Wendy Trattner, a sophomore at MIT.
She is one of three drivers on the team from Massachusetts. The 19-year-old got involved with the team because she thinks an alternative source of energy will play a significant role in the future.
“I was always into solar energy. I think it’s definitely going to be important in solving the climate problems that we face,” she said.
Unlike the Ontario car, the MIT vehicle only seats one. The space for the driver is rather cramped, which is a reason why drivers of the solar cars are usually on the smaller side.
Trattner likes driving except for one thing — a lack of air conditioning.
“I didn’t realize there’d be no air conditioning when I volunteered. I thought it would be really fun, and it is really fun besides that,” she said.
Other challenges include no power steering and avoiding sharp turns due to a large steering radius.
While gathered in Hastings, teams also interact with each other. That has been a highlight for those from St. Petersburg Polytechnic University who have created the first solar-powered car in Russia.
Evgeniy “John” Zakhlebaev, team manager, said the team was faced with a test developing the car because no one believed they could do it.
“Everyone thought this was impossible. We showed to everybody that all is possible and we don’t care about difficulty,” he said.
The car has gotten a lot of publicity in their country, including from Russian President Vladimir Putin who signed his name to the outer shell.
“He also wrote, ‘Good luck, guys,’” Zakhlebaev said, pointing to the words on the vehicle.
While some of the competitors in the solar challenge are new, like the Russian team, others have had a presence there for a number of years.
The team from the University of California Berkeley has been part of the event multiple times.
For the past year, sophomores Ray Altenberg and Alexander Zerkle have been members of the team, a decision they made after seeing a solar car up close when they were in high school. Their interest was piqued back then and it seemed like a natural fit because of their interests.
“Building a car is exciting, but we are building a solar car. That’s about as cool as it gets. I did robotics in high school and this is a natural transition,” said Altenberg, 19, who is a computer science major.
The skills picked up while working on the cars can help students with their future careers. Though Zerkle, 18, is studying molecular and cell biology, he said there is much to be learned from being part of the team.
“There’s of course all the engineering stuff. We have a lot of engineering majors on the team who will go on to do engineering jobs. We have companies who like to recruit from our team,” he said.
There is also logistics and business, areas he works in.
“It takes a lot of logistical work to get a team of 35 people from Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay area to Nebraska. Then it gets even more complicated when we pack everyone in cars and move across the country,” Zerkle said.
The cross-country race will be complete in five phases and ends on July 22. There will be checkpoints and stage stops along the way, including at the Stuhr Museum on July 14 where the public can meet with the teams and get a closer look at the vehicles.
The winner of the endurance race is the team that has the quickest accumulative time.
Getting that first-place finish is a goal but not the main focus for most teams. Rather, it is about the skills gained from creating a car.
“I would say for our team it’s definitely more about the experience of building a car. We all came here to have a really good learning experience and to compete to see how we do. We are never really trying to get first place but we definitely would like to. But it’s more about the journey and how we got here,” Trattner said.