Diego Lewis - July 7th, 2017
Strap in ladies & gentlemen, grab some popcorn and your favorite beverage, get comfortable because this one is going to be a doozy.
Let’s start from the beginning.
We set our alarms for 5:15 AM this morning. This let us get to the track, set up our pit, and start charging our batteries at 7AM on the dot. The race officials lock up our battery box every night to ensure no teams are charging their batteries from the wall overnight to gain an unfair advantage. They return them to us at exactly 7AM and all teams immediately begin charging right up until race time (9 AM today and tomorrow). No problems here, we got some good charge in and we were feeling justifiably confident.
App State started in the 3rd position today, which is also no problem. Our drivers are very experienced and know how to navigate crowded situations. Things were running smoothly for the first half hour or so until, again, the electrical component behind the accelerator pedal became disconnected, meaning we could not change our speed. Driver Lindsay Rudisill was in the car when it came to a stop, and our rescue team immediately jumped into the rescue van and got to her as quickly as possible. I was told first hand that she did everything she could from within the cabin to get the pedal connected again, but to no avail.
Fortunately our reaction was swift and effective. Our rescue squad was able to get the pedal connected again for long enough to get us back to the garage. We then had to borrow a drill bit from another team and we spent 5-10 minutes drilling into the car. It is not generally a good thing when you have to drill directly into the car. I don’t think I can go into more detail while protecting important information, but a more permanent fix was applied and we were back on the road. The ordeal cost us 20 more minutes of track time but nevertheless, we were running hot and still on pace to take the lead or at least get in good position for it by the end of the day, even though we had dropped all the way to 5th place, the furthest we’ve ever been from the lead.
The rest of the race day went absolutely spectacular. Lindsay drove for almost 6 straight hours, clawing us back to 3rd place from 5th. We ran one full-service pit stop where we swapped drivers and put on a fresh set of tires. Cristian hopped in the car and got straight to it. He almost immediately got us into 2nd place by passing Poly Montreal and continued advancing on the leader, Team CalSol from UC Berkeley.
We went from 5th to 3rd over the course of a few hours and almost immediately up to 2nd. I’ve yet to see another car make that kind of progress in that short an amount of time. The pit stop I mentioned was undoubtedly the fastest and smoothest solar car pit stop I’ve ever seen. It was a true spectacle to behold; every piece fit seamlessly into place, everyone was exactly where they needed to be and moving at blinding speed. We did a full tire change and driver swap in ~3 minutes and 15 seconds. I can’t wait to see the footage, it was incredible.
So we finish Race Day 2 in 2nd place, 2 laps behind CalSol for the day, for a total of 4 laps behind CalSol (we were 2 laps behind them day 1 as well, the race spans all 3 days). This is a good place to be in, because by now it is clear (at least to us) that we have the best performing car, when we’re not experiencing unexpected pedal failures that keep forcing us off the track for frustrating amounts of time. Nevertheless, at this point we are more than still in this. We’re in podium positioning and continuing to gain on the leader.
Now this is where things get really wild. Go ahead and get a refill, maybe some more snacks and comfy blankets. This is also why this post is delayed; I could not in good conscience publish this information without first running this by our omnipotent and omniscient (yes, really) leader Dan Blakeley before uploading. Solar Vehicle Teams are notorious for helping each other in every way we can, except for race strategy. You don’t talk about race strategy.
So every day, immediately after the end of race time at 5PM, a new race begins to get to charging as fast as possible until 8PM, when race regulations require us to lock our batteries up and hand them over to the officials.
Suddenly, things take a turn for the worst. Race officials began testing all the teams’ emergency kill switches once we’re all charging. When an official came to our car and flipped our switch, we immediately knew something was wrong. Upon restarting the car, one of the four MPPTs (the circuit boards that regulate the power collected by the solar panels) was not responding. This means we were charging at only 3/4 of the rate that we should have been.
Frantic phone calls, emails, and hair-pulling ensued. I personally almost overheated running back and forth from the garage fetching batteries, phones, and tools. It was absolute and total organized chaos.
Then we looked up.
With a 0% chance of rain on the radar, ominous clouds formed very suddenly in the distance, forming a V pattern which was sharply closing in on us. We could see a mile-wide column of water advancing toward us, and this shape of clouds meant we wouldn’t be able to watch the rain come toward us and gauge how long we had to charge, it would just suddenly start raining and we could not be charging when that happened. The cars internal components are exposed during morning and evening charging because we lift the array off of the car to angle it toward the sun.
So, on top of trying to isolate the problem with the MPPT while pleading with the race officials who flipped the switch, we now had to pack up everything in heavy winds with rain starting to fall. These same heavy winds almost picked up Univ. of Kentucky solar team’s array which was right behind ours. It was quite a close call, great reaction time on their part. I don’t want to think about what may have transpired had their array caught a harder gust of wind and come flying toward ours.
We make it back to the garage just as the torrential rain picks up outside. Our engineers immediately get back to work on trying to fix our barbecued MPPT. After a half hour of heavy rain, thunder, and lightning, the storm suddenly clears and race officials allow all teams to get back out and charge for one last hour. Unfortunately, we are so far deep into trying to fix our MPPT that this was not an option for us. The car was in pieces, we had people working on the MPPT, others reinforcing our accelerator pedal connection; and now we were supposed to get the car back out to charge. No amount of manpower would have helped at that point, it was a real mess. A good portion of the team stayed working in the garage until officials kicked us out at 10:30PM.
We are all delirious from exhaustion, heat, stress, and dehydration. And yet here we are, still grinding away at our specializations. None of us are compensated in any way for any of our work on the team, we are driving our minds and bodies into the ground for this car, and I’ve yet to hear a single complaint. We believe in ourselves, our team, and most importantly, in Dan’s vision of what we can accomplish. I’m going to go ahead and cut this off here, I’ve got to go to bed.
I’d like to give a HUUUGE shout out to CalSol - UC Berkeley Solar Vehicle Team, the team we are currently 2nd behind, for giving us their only spare MPPT in effort to help get us going again. They now have no spare MPPTs if this or anything MPPT related somehow happens to them, so we are extremely thankful. It's not a plug-and-play fix, programming and installing an MPPT is a very complex process, but every bit of help is huge at this stage. The sportsmanship they demonstrated today speaks volumes not only of the quality and fortitude of their team, but of the solar vehicle community as a whole.