Nine Collegiate Teams Competing In Coast-To-Coast American Solar Challenge Pit Stop In Lander

Nine different collegiate teams competing in the coast-to-coast American Solar Challenge drove their solar cars through Lander on Wednesday on their way to finish line in Oregon.

Bill Sniffin

July 14, 20224 min read

Solar car 1 v2 scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

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The old travel joke starts with a question: “Do you know what the snail yelled when riding on the back of a turtle?” The answer: “Wheeee!”

Such a yell might describe the less-than-speedy experience some drivers had cruising across the length of vast Wyoming in their solar-powered cars this week in an event called the American Solar Challenge.

The “race” is a multi-day, 1,500-2,000 mile cross-country endurance rally across North America. It typically happens every two years and is open to collegiate level solar car teams from countries all over the world.

The winner of ASC is determined by the total elapsed time to complete the race route.

Nine cars from across North America are competing in the event this year and the teams stopped in Lander for a night at the Pioneer Museum.

Solar Convoy

Shreya Agarwal drove the MIT-sponsored car during its last leg into the community. She said her single-passenger car averaged about 40 mph. It only weighs 445 pounds. 

Did she worry about deer or antelope on the road? 

“Actually not,” she said. “What was scary was when people wanted to pass us.” 

By “us,” she meant the convoy of solar cars and support vehicles making the long trip from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon. The 1,400 mile trip started July 8 and is scheduled to end on Friday.

Some of the smaller cars are tiny with claustrophobic cockpits for the lone driver. Agarwal said some of the scariest moments were when pickups pulling horse trailers passed them at high rates of speed on the two-lane roads.

The event is a contest of both brains and skill. The cars are extremely lightweight and are literally powered by the sun. 

“The sun hits our solar collectors on the cars and then charges our batteries, which then operate a motor which turns the wheels,” said Jacob Svatek, who was driving the University of Minnesota entry. 

It was a two-passenger design, which allowed it to go 65 mph, just under the 70 mph speed limit on Wyoming’s two-lane highways.

Costly Vehicles

All the vehicles were custom made and their teams are made up of engineers and brainy types. Some of the vehicles had estimated costs of nearly $500,000, one of the pit crew members said.

On this day, they journeyed from Gering, Nebraska, through Casper and on to Lander for the night. The biggest bottleneck was a construction stop 12 miles southeast of Lander which caused the cars to bunch together.

The group included three two-passenger cars and six single-passenger cars. The Lander stop was sponsored by the Pioneer Museum and the drivers, pit crews, and support staff were treated to a dinner of hamburgers topped off with cold watermelon and cookies. Two of the people working on the project were museum director Randy Wise and Maggie Appleby of the Pioneer Association.

The solar car folks dined in beautiful weather under blue skies. Although the temperatures were in the 90s during their journey that day from Gering, they were refreshed and ready to launch their vehicles on perhaps the toughest leg of the trip the next morning.

Oregon Trail

Their trip was to also celebrate the Oregon Trail and the steepest point in that historic trip by wagon train 170 years ago was hauling their wagons up South Pass, one of the longest passes in the country.

On Thursday, these nine competitors were scheduled to duplicate that feat by seeing if their solar-powered cars could reach the summit of South Pass, much like those intrepid emigrants over a century and a half ago.

Besides MIT and Minnesota, other entrants were from the University of Illinois, University of Kentucky, University of California-Berkeley, Principia College, Montreal Poly, ETS/Canada, and Appalachian State.

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.