All Saints solar car team finishes second in nation

Courtney Fillmore

Fort Worth Business Press


All Saints’ Episcopal School placed second out of 19 high school teams in the 2014 nationwide Solar Car Challenge, with its student-built solar car covering a distance of 435.2 miles over four days in the hybrid closed-track/cross country event, which began on July 21.

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Teams are ranked by their knowledge of solar energy, their individual vehicle, their closed-track racing, and the total miles driven and speed of their car in the race from Dallas/Fort Worth to Austin.

Last year was All Saints’ first year to compete in the Challenge, said graduated senior Emily Marcho on the day before the team began the race to Austin. The mood of the team was optimistic. They had finished the second day of closed-track racing with a ranking of second.

“Last year was our first year of competing, and it took a lot of trial and error,” said Marcho, the team’s only female member. Then the team’s goal had been simply not to breakdown, which they did not.

“This year it’s more about efficiency. How we are efficient, and how we are using our power wisely,” said Marcho. The team was prepared and confident in their ability to deal with any potential mishaps. “We can breakdown because we know what to fix.”

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The All Saints’ Episcopal School solar car team consisted of four team captains, senior Ryan Drobnich, senior Ethan Fricks, senior Eric Getz and senior Nicholas Iglesias, as well as, junior Chandler Carr, junior Carson Fricks, graduated senior Emily Marcho, graduated senior Wyatt Kelly, senior Kevin Stadtler, sophomore Sam Terrell, sophomore David Vega-Pulido, senior Jack Walraven, senior Scott Walraven and junior David Whitaker.

The team of 14 students had spent countless after-school hours in the shop, learning about solar energy, applying mechanical and electrical principles to building the solar car (named Heliodore), all the while preparing for the race. The students were also responsible for their funding and for acquiring sponsors.

This year’s Solar Car Challenge was hosted by Austin Energy and took four days. The teams spent the first two days at Texas Motor Speedway participating in the closed-track portion of the race, before they began their two-day solar-powered drive from Texas Motor Speedway to their destination in Austin, taking back roads to avoid the Interstate 35 traffic. The first day they drove to Waco, taking Texas 114 to U.S. 281 and then to Texas 6. The second day, they followed Texas 434 to U.S. 77 to U.S. 79, arriving at their destination, the Samsung Semiconductor Plant in Austin.

The team members drove their own vehicles over the route, taking turns, and were at all times accompanied by a spot car to help in navigating the Cormac McCarthyesque hellscape that is the traffic that accompanies any drive to Austin.

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Each team was also accompanied by a judge from the competition at all times, and was allowed to load their solar car onto a trailer if they deemed a particular strip of road too challenging or draining on their vehicle’s battery.

While many on the All Saints team were specifically interested in solar energy and the scientific aspects, some just wanted to be on the ground floor of a project unlike any the school has attempted in the past.

“I’d say most of us are interested in engineering. We were all interested in a new project that has never really been done before at our school, so that attracted a lot of people. The business aspect also attracted some people,” said team captain Nicholas Iglesias, who would like to study neuroscience at college.

“The seed capital came from an All Saints’ family – the Jeff R. Dillard family – who funds a faculty excellence award each year,” said Keira Moody, director of communications and marketing for All Saints.

Moody noted that after this initial seed funding, the team had to find its own sponsors.

“Since then, our solar car team has been responsible for securing sponsors to fund the program. This is actually a big part of the learning experience for them. How to pitch to investors, manage the capital and report results,” said Moody.

Because the competitions offer no prize money, it is the responsibility of the students to raise money for the car.

“Everything we do for the car, every trip that we go on, we raise money for ourselves,” said Iglesias, who estimates the team spent less than $20,000 on the actual building of the car.

But the satisfaction of a job well done and a trophy are more than enough reward for these young people.

“How often can you say that you drove or built a solar car?” chuckled senior Scott Walraven, a founding member of the team who hopes to study biomedical engineering at college.

Solar enthusiasts and aficionados can also count on seeing All Saints at next year’s competition, said Walraven. This declaration was met with nods and cheers from his teammates. The team hopes that with this strong finish, the school will be open to expanding the program.

All Saints now has an interest in building an on-campus garage specifically for the solar car, said Marcho. For the past year the team worked on its vehicle off campus, in concrete manufacturer and team sponsor The Fricks Company’s building, off West Loop 820.

Marcho, who will attend Rhodes College in Memphis in the fall to study biology and literature, participating in a program like the Solar Car Challenge gives students an edge during the college application process.

“The fact that we are getting out and doing something like this and taking initiative for ourselves is something that all colleges look for,” said Marcho. “This is not an obligation for us to do. This is something that everyone takes out spare time in their days to do, especially our sponsors.”

“Taking initiative like this is really important for all colleges, especially for big engineering schools,” said Marcho. “It’s showing that you have the ability to go out and put yourself in the world of business, of engineering, of sciences.”

Students in the program learn how to design, engineer, build and race roadworthy solar cars. Workshops, curriculum materials and on-site visits help support the students, with the goal being the Solar Car Challenge. Each team also has a team adviser. For All Saints, that was physics teacher Lyle Crossley.

Last year’s competing teams drove their solar cars from Dallas/Fort Worth to Los Angeles and as a first-year team, All Saints placed sixth against 13 other schools.

Looking around the garage at Texas Motor Speedway the day before the teams set out on the long drive, it was striking that no two cars looked exactly alike. Every competing vehicle must have certain features such as a roll cage, safety harness, horn, turn signals and a fire extinguisher, and the cars must meet guidelines regulating vehicle size. But variation comes in the form of number of wheels, the overall look of the car’s frame, battery type, number of solar cells and motor. So what had the All Saints team changed in the past year?

“We’ve added more solar panels, designing them on a hinge to absorb sunlight while the car is not in motion. We’ve also lightened the weight of the car,” said Iglesias.

He said this year’s enhanced model has an average speed of 21 mph and weighs almost 970 pounds.

All Saints’ Heliodore uses six Werker batteries, with 55 ampere hours – the amount of energy charge in a battery that will allow one ampere of current to flow for one hour, each. The six solar panels mounted on top of the car were manufactured by Panasonic and have an efficiency of 17.8 percent.

The Solar Car Challenge began in 1993 as the Winston Solar Challenge, a high school extra-curricular program. As its popularity escalated and participation increased, the Solar Car Challenge became its own nonprofit entity. Over 65 schools in 20 states participate in the challenge.