Speed isn't important in the Formula Sun Grand Prix. It is more of a marathon than a sprint, with the goal of the race to finish more laps than your competitors by the end of the three days. In fact, speed is so secondary that this year's winning team had the third worst fast-lap time.
"The big thing with solar car races is the consistency," explained one Principia College student. "If you can stay on the track all day, all three days, you should do pretty well."
There is a lot that leads up to the race for the schools involved. Most teams spend around two years developing and testing their solar powered vehicles.
Eleven colleges and universities showed up to compete in this year's Formula Sun Grand Prix. In order to compete in the race, each school has to pass three days of a series of inspections and tests called scrutineering, which demonstrates that both the car and drivers are capable of racing. This year, nine of the eleven teams were cleared to race.
"All solar cars begin with a full battery pack for a mass start. For the next eight hours, the cars do laps around a road course track, coming into the pit for driver changes, tire changes, and other maintenance," according to Formula Sun. "At the end of the day, teams are given time to charge their batteries by pointing them towards the setting sun." The teams are also given time in the morning to charge their batteries before the race resumes.
The 2013 Formula Sun Grand Prix was the closest race in its 13-year history. Oregon State University edged out second place finisher Illinois State by only one lap, with 193 and 192 laps finished, respectively. Iowa State came in a close third with 191 laps finished.
Along with being the closest race in the competition's history, Formula Sun 2013 was one of the hottest, with the mercury frequently rising above 100 degrees. "According to [American Solar Challenge] officials, the temperatures we experienced this past week were record highs," said Principia's Kali McKee and Lisa Lewis on the team's blog.
Though it is a competition, the teams are always rooting for one another and helping each other out. For Oregon State University, the win wouldn't have happened if they hadn't borrowed motors from fellow competitors Missouri S&T and Northwestern University, neither of which had passed the scrutineering round. They even borrowed tires from fourth place overall finisher Principia College.
"Everybody wants everybody to do well," remarked another Principia student. "We all know how much work has gone into making these cars."
Though solar-powered vehicles seem like futuristic technology, these races have been around for nearly a quarter century, starting with Sunrayce USA in 1990, a long distance road event that took competitors 1,800 miles from Disneyworld in Orlando, Fla. to the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich.
The Sunrayce eventually lead to the first Formula Sun Grand Prix in 2000, which took place at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan. Now, 13 years later, the Formula Sun Grand Prix is still shining bright at the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 race track in Austin, Texas.