Fifteen cars powered only by the sun cruised across the finish line of the North American Solar Challenge at the University of Calgary amid cheering fans from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Averaging speeds of around 60 kilometres per hour, U of C's Schulich I crossed the finish line in sixth place Tuesday after the 3,800 kilometre journey from Dallas, Texas.
"It's a big bump from last time and this is the second time we've raced this car," said project co-chair Darshni Pillay. "Last time we ran this race with Soleon we were 12th."
New regulations since the NASC race in 2005 forced the team to build a new car that saw its first race in Australia last fall in the Panasonic World Solar Challenge.
"It was really great to have all these people out to support us," said driver and race team manager Tiffany Veltman. One of two drivers, Veltman was behind the wheel when the team arrived to a hero's welcome in Calgary as fans flocked around Schulich I to congratulate the home team upon crossing the finish line.
While Schulich I is capable of reaching speeds of over 100 kilometres per hour, the pace of the car is at the mercy of the weather.
"We were kind of caught in some bad spots in the weather early on and we just had to try to fight through them and get there," said electrical manager Leo Marrero, who decided the car's speed strategy. "[Bad weather] puts a severe handicap on the car in that we need to rely on our batteries. We don't get much energy from the sun in weather like that."
Marrero explained the strategy relies on knowing when to slow down and speed up. Factors that come from technical data on Schulich I's batteries, weather and terrain are taken into consideration.
"We had a good charge from the night before in Medicine Hat," said mechanical engineering team member Ravi Mani. "Over the course of the race, there were scattered clouds and when we got into Calgary, we were draining our pack a bit, but we had anticipated that."
The team drained their pack Tuesday because a full battery charge does little good at the end of a race.
A lot of work goes into driving the car as well, explained Veltman. The inside of the car tends to sit at about five degrees Celsius warmer than the outside, which can get uncomfortable when driving five to six hour shifts, especially during Texas' hot summer.
"For the most part it is like driving a regular car, but the drivers have to go through a lot of training for it," he said. "We had to do physical training and endurance training, and different kinds of driving training just to learn how to handle the car."
It wasn't just the fans that were excited to see the U of C's car cross the finish line. The team was exhausted following the grueling race and is looking forward to sleeping in their own beds at last.
"I just have to take the C-Train home and take a nap when I get there," said Mani, relieved he wouldn't have to take a plane home afterward like the other teams.
"As we were driving down McKnight, it kind of hit [us], 'We're home, we're almost there,'" said Pillay. "It's a big relief to know that we can take a break for a while before we start the next race."