Michigan Engineering News

Our panel of solar supporters | Race, day three

The Michigan car ended the day in one of the best positions in team history, and the family, friends and alumni riding along are doing more than just cheering.

solar car drives through the Australian outback
Novum cruises through the Australian outback.

During the morning charge, mechanical lead Perry Benson looks perfectly comfortable snuggled next to Novum on the jagged red gravel – making sure not to shade the array. This cozy position has simply become routine.

He holds a small device up to the array and asks, “Can we go pin down?” The team adjusts the angle of the array accordingly. The object in his hand is a small 3D printed wedge with a thin two-inch stem protruding upward, like a sundial. “When there’s no shadow on this, we’re pointing properly,” explains Benson. “It’s just called a pointer.”

“Actually, it’s an ‘incorporated azimuth zenith alignment optimizer’,” jokes Eric Brown, the race array engineer. Everyone laughs.

The relaxed humor of the team going into day three is reassuring. This demeanor is the result of confidence, preparedness and comfort level with each other – as teammates and friends.

Also adding to the psyche is the shared appreciation for the alumni and family that have come to support the team. “They’ve helped us set up tents and organize supplies,” says teammate Janice Lau. “They calm us down because they’ve been through this before.”

Alumnus Josh Agby raced in 2015. On the first night, he stayed up late with the team helping do mechanical checks. Some the parents (and longtime supporter Chuck Hutchins) are often waiting at control stops – having arrived early to help make sure the path is clear for Novum and getting clarification on what the officials expect of the team. “So, there’s less for us to worry about,” says Benson.

“I try to find little ways to help out,” says Yelena Pham, a recent Solar Car Team alumna who is camping along the Stuart Highway with the team. As a student, she joined in between build cycles and never had a chance to be on the race crew in Australia. “Even if I can help set up the tents, that saves a little bit of time that the team members can use to do something else. This is great, and I want to come back.”

Joining the alumni and family is the team’s faculty advisor, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Neil Dasgupta. This is his second trip to Australia with the team.

“It’s great to have some family members and alumni here,” says Dasgupta. “I’ve been traveling and eating meals with them. Sharing stories and seeing the pride in their children is quite inspirational. I try to stay pretty hands-off, and that’s the way the students prefer it. That’s something that differentiates our team from some of the others. It’s student-run, even at the organization and leadership level.”

Although Michigan Solar Car is a student endeavor, they are racing up to their reputation – as one of the top outfits in the world.

Even though a few things didn’t go as planned today, the crew was cracking jokes, laughing and sang a round of The Victors while pointing the array toward the setting sun.

Michigan started the day in fourth and ended in second – passing rivals Twente and Tokai. Although the top four cars are still within a tight grouping – as of tonight, there’s only one more for Novum to pass, Nuon.

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