Smile Politely

The humble camaraderie of solar car racing

It was t-minus-four days until the Illini Solar Car team would hit the road in the first true test of their work. In just a few days, the drivers, crew, and Brizo, their solar-powered race car, would head to Independence, Missouri for the American Solar Challenge.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 American Solar Challenge was postponed. That meant this race would not just be the first race with Brizo but the first that the team had competed in since 2019’s Challenge.

But during routine maneuvers in a parking lot as the team prepared to take to the streets the car had a rollover.

“This is probably the scariest thing we experienced,” said Priyal Gosar, Illini Solar Car’s race captain for the 2021 American Solar Challenge.

The driver was fine, but Brizo was not. The team brought it back to their trailers and assessed the damage. “Overall, the atmosphere with the team was very positive,” said Gosar. “A lot of people were like ‘let’s just fix what needs to be fixed.’” With some help from a few professors, Brizo was patched up and back onto the road soon after. That was a good thing for Gosar and her team, who had spent months on logistics for this race, often working 80-hour weeks to get Brizo ready for the big race.

“That was a good moment where the team came together,” said Gosar. “We all wanted to go to the race.”

That determination, cooperation, teamwork, and initiative is what helped the University of Illinois’ solar car team take home 4th place at the national solar car challenge earlier this month. Those qualities are in vogue among the students who compete in these races, representing their schools and putting their engineering know-how to work.

Solar-powered Brizo races through the scene as the background blurs from the speed. The car is white with blue and orange accents, its lower half is covered in advertisments and acknowledgements for sponsorships. Inside sits a student wearing a white helmet, visible through the clear dome of the cockpit in the center of the car. Photo provided by Illini Solar Car.

Photo provided by Illini Solar Car.

U of I’s solar car team was founded in 2014. Since then, the team has built two cars over three generations of students. Each year, hundreds of students on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus come together to work on the project.

Solar car racing probably isn’t as well-known as collegiate football, but for many engineering students, this friendly competition between universities may be more important to the reputation of their schools.

“Probably the best solar car team in the United States is the University of Michigan,” says Tara D’Souza, president of Illini Solar Car. “We always try to set our goals pretty high and aim to be as good as the best teams.” However, according to D’Souza, there’s more cooperation and recognition between teams than animosity.

“I wouldn’t say we really have a rival team. Maybe, jokingly, Michigan,” says D’Souza. “I think there’s this really cool camaraderie amongst solar car teams.”

Even though the team had prepared for months, difficulties were bound to happen when it came to race day, especially since their car had never undergone formal inspection by race regulators. When they got to the start point, the team was told the horn in Brizo did not meet specifications for volume. Luckily, other teams were willing to help.

“We basically just went down the line of teams and asked if anyone had a spare horn,” says D’Souza. “We ended up getting one from Illinois State, and we ran with that on our car. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to compete. I think one team loaned a full motor to another team. You really are all working together, and everyone wants to see everyone at least get out on the road.”

In the eyes of U of I’s team, that cooperation between schools is central to the ethos of solar car racing, and it’s paid back in full when there’s reason to celebrate.

“When we saw other teams get on the track and start rolling at Heartland Motorsports Park, we were all cheering for them,” says Rishi Mohan, Illini Solar Car’s Director of Operations. “Because it’s not about winning in that moment, it’s about just being happy for another team. Getting through the same trials and tribulations that we successfully passed.”

Several men in polo shirts and khaki shorts are standing around the orange and white solar car. They are next to a tailgate tent with a blue awning. Photo by Justin Malone.

Photo by Justin Malone.

Hot off their race this summer, Illini Solar Car already has eyes on the future. Their goal is to enter the World Solar Challenge across the Australian outback in 2023. To stay competitive with the top teams across the country and beyond, the team will have to build a new car next year. That’s part of a two-year design-build-race timeline that the best teams use.

D’Souza says this fast turnaround from car to car has a lot of benefits. Students turn over every four years because of the university, technology moves forward, regulations on the sport change, and building an entirely new car so often allows the team to learn from past mistakes and make changes.

Along with the new car, the team is hopeful to expand after tabling U of I’s Quad Day. After a difficult year for recruiting, with students learning virtually from their hometowns, the team hopes to bring on new members to keep the project alive on campus.

Top photo provided by Illini Solar Car. 

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