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Houston High students ready to ‘race the sun’

HOUSTON — The students at Houston High School are ready to make the sojourn to the Australian outback in the World Solar Challenge, but they might have a problem getting there: lack of money.

At the end of September, more than half of the $125,000 needed for the crew of 17 and their solar racing car, Sundancer, to travel to Australia, had been raised. But circumstances as a result of the Sept. 11 tragedies may hinder their plans.

“The estimated cost of airline tickets, as of the first of September, was $38,000,” said Danny Lantrip, director of the Houston Vocational Center. “However, we had been working with the Mississippi Air National Guard to transport the students and the car, but events of the last few days will probably put a wrinkle on that. We have about given up on the idea of the military plane, but Hassell Franklin, a local business leader and the city’s largest employer, has been in touch with Congressman Roger Wicker who said it’s still a possibility to use the trip as a training mission. If that came through, we could cover everything else.”

In July, the Houston Solar Racing Team — and Sundancer — won the Winston Solar Challenge, an eight-day cross-country race from Austin, Texas, to Columbus, Ind. Taking the lead on the first day, they ended the race with more than a 200-mile lead over the second place finisher, Chamizal, from Juarez, Mexico.

Houston finished the race with 795.1 miles. Chamizal was second with 523.4 miles. As the winner, the $25,000 entry free to the biannual World Solar Challenge, held in Australia this November, was waived.

“This was only the second time Houston students have raced in the solar challenge — and the only Mississippi team that participated,” Lantrip said. “Last year, Houston placed sixth of nine.”

The Winston Solar Challenge was established in 1995 as a result of an effort designed to motivate students in the sciences, to stress the value of alternative energy and to give students an opportunity to display their work. Hosted by the Winston Solar Car Team, a high school solar program at The Winston School in Dallas, the national race is sponsored by Green Mountain Energy Co., the largest retail provider of less polluting electricity in the U.S. serving residential customers.

More than 100 teams, primarily from top universities and research establishments from around the world, are expected to compete in Solar Odyssey 2001 from Nov. 18-27. The World Solar Challenge, where solar cars use only daylight as fuel to traverse the Australian continent from Darwin to Adelaide, an approximate 1,900-mile trip, was established in 1987. Because about 95% of Australia’s population lives within 10 miles of the continent’s coast, the route is extremely remote.

Keith Reese, a 17-year electrical teacher at Houston High School, thought the solar car race was an excellent way to motivate his students.

“Keith is a very creative teacher,” Lantrip said. “The first car was built out of electrical conduit and an electric motor found in the back of the shop and a solar panel somebody had given Keith. It had an air tank for pneumatic brakes and four or five batteries in it. It wouldn’t go very far — I think they got it up to 30 miles — so they put it in two or three Christmas parades. They came back a couple of years later and built a heavier version.”

High schools across the U.S. were facing similar challenges in building solar cars. At the first Winston Solar Challenge, only three cars passed “scrutineering” and qualified to run.

“The first true solar car was built two years ago,” Lantrip said. “We carried it to the Winston Solar Challenge at the Texas Motor Speedway in Dallas and sat around in 115 degree heat watching other solar cars go round and round that track. We didn’t know a whole lot about solar car racing then. We had hydraulic brakes, where the brakes actually rubbed discs like they do on automobiles. The solar panels we bought had quarter-inch plate glass that made it very heavy. We had a regular motor and put a V-belt on it to drive. We had sealed grease bearings and the grease was heavy. We didn’t think about taking that out or using a different kind of bearing. Our learning curve was almost straight up.”

Reese said he kept very good notes from earlier cars.

“Then in early 2000, we got with the school district and proposed to the students to build a very complex, competitive solar race car,” Reese said.

The Mississippi Development Authority contributed funds to the project.

The solar car became a class project for engineering students at Mississippi State University, who assisted in the design of an efficient energy management system and the development of a racing strategy based on information obtained in real-time via a telemetry link with an MSU support vehicle.

“We only gave advice, the Houston kids built this,” said Marshall Molen, Ph.D., department head for electrical and computer engineering at MSU. “They constructed a vehicle that was able to go 800 miles. No other team was able to handle that kind of punishment on their vehicle. That’s important. Other teams were constantly breaking down with technical problems. Essentially, we had no technical problems during the race. That speaks well of what the students were able to do.”

After they won the race, Sundancer — and the Houston Solar Racing Team —became an overnight national sensation. The car was on display at the Rockefeller Center in New York and ESPN featured it several times. USA Today ran a story about it. Reese and other team members were featured on The Today Show and Good Morning America. In addition to the 64 official media representatives registered with the race, a film crew followed the entire race for a documentary.

“Mississippi definitely got a lot of coverage,” Lantrip said.

More than 200 people attended a special welcome-home celebration with Gov. Ronnie Musgrove at the courthouse in Houston when the Houston Solar Racing Team returned home.

With only three months to raise $125,000, students and faculty immediately organized fundraising events and raised $25,560 by the end of September.

“We did a little of everything,” Lantrip said. “Leon Martin of Houston, former owner at the local Dodge Chrysler dealership, gave us a 1993 Chrysler New Yorker that we sold $10 chances on. The car was worth about $3,000 and we sold about $5,000 in tickets on it. We had an auction with donated items and baked goods to sell. One mama gave us a $100 bill to sell tickets on. Somebody gave us a ham and we sold nearly $400 in tickets on both. The lady that won the $100 bill gave it back to us. The community has been incredibly supportive.”

Business and industry around the state has chipped in. The Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA) executive committee pledged $5,000 and sent letters to manufacturers requesting assistance.

“We feel this is a wonderful opportunity to promote vocational/technical education and applied skills training,” said John Baas, director of industrial relations for MMA.

Within a week of sending the letter, $550 had been pledged through MMA’s office, and Lantrip said manufacturers from Hattiesburg to Corinth had sent $1,500 directly to the school, in denominations ranging from $25 to $500.

Lantrip said the trip is so expensive because “it’s like a rolling NASCAR team.”

“When you race across the Outback, you have to carry supplies, food and everything you’ll need,” he said. “Wherever the car stops at 5 p.m., that’s where you camp that night. At 8 a.m. the next morning, your car is rolled back up to the line and you race until 5 p.m. If you have breakdowns, you have to make repairs on the side of the road. They tell us that no
rican high school team has ever completed this race.”

By comparison, the Winston Solar Challenge was a breeze, Lantrip said.

“We’d stop at a certain point and have a plac


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About Lynne W. Jeter

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