When you think of the Oregon Trail, odds are your vision doesn't include racing the route in a solar-powered vehicle.
"There have been lots of travelers across Oregon Trail-type routes over the years, and still today, people recreate some of the wagon travel...but to my knowledge, this will be the first time solar cars are attempting to do an Oregon Trail-type route," said Gail Lueck, event director of the American Solar Challenge.
In a traditional sense, the Oregon Trail was a grueling battle of attrition, rather than a race for speed. For the 21 teams slated to compete in the American Solar Challenge in 2018, the terms, as well as the mode of travel, will be extraordinarily different.
Long distance solar car racing began in 1990 under the moniker "Sunrayce." The biennial event has been organized by several different groups over the years, most recently taken over and operated by the nonprofit, Innovators Education Foundation.
To increase the heat on this year's event, the collegiate student competition will require solar vehicles to travel over 1,700 miles from Omaha, Neb., to the finish line at The High Desert Museum in Bend. To complete the multi-day race, teams must demonstrate extreme ingenuity, speed and endurance.
"We currently have about 60 active members from a wide range of both engineering and non-engineering disciplines, the vast majority being undergraduates," said Ray Altenberg of the University of California, Berkeley's CalSol Race team.
The UC Berkeley team has built several cars since the inception of solar car racing and has had great success, most notably winning last year's Formula Sun Grand Prix.
According to Lueck, there's much more to the American Solar Challenge than hitting the accelerator at the sound of the starter pistol and zipping through the finish line. Qualifying to participate in the American Solar Challenge is an achievement in its own right.
The event starts with a four-day inspection process known as "Scrutineering." During that phase, the cars go through tests for design, acceleration, braking and maneuvers such as the figure-8 test. Vehicles passing the inspection move to a three-day track event, the Formula Sun Grand Prix, which takes place on a road course in Hastings, Neb., where the solar-powered cars demonstrate their reliability. Only the cars capable of completing a specified number of laps will qualify to participate in the American Solar Challenge beginning July 14.
- Some 21 solar-powered cars are expected to arrive in Central Oregon on July 22.
"We would expect somewhere between 10 to 15 solar cars completing all of those hoops and getting on the road," said Lueck.
Don't show up expecting burning rubber and billowing exhaust pipes. The cars destined to reach the High Desert Museum finish line will have put their focus on energy management and engineering prowess rather than adrenaline-inducing speed and horsepower.
The American Solar Challenge is working in partnership with the National Park Service to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System. The two organizations worked in conjunction to develop the demanding course, which begins in Omaha at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters, makes several checkpoints and stage stops along some historic Oregon Trail routes, and finishes in Bend.
Spectators are encouraged to attend and cheer on competitors as they cross the checkered mat in front of the High Desert Museum July 22 between 11am and 4pm. Christina Cid, director of programs at the High Desert Museum, assures that there will be ample fun for the whole family as the National Park Service, OSU Cascades, Oregon/California Trail Association and the High Desert Museum bring the history of the Oregon Trail to life. There will be numerous activities and abundant information comparing and contrasting current and historic travel methods, cooking techniques and engineering. The American Solar Challenge organization will also provide programs, free for High Desert Museum guests.
While making it to the finish line is the goal, the American Solar Challenge is a much more robust and complicated event. According to Altenberg, the build process of a solar car takes generally between one to two years, and involves many brilliant minds and talented hands.
"In terms of the most difficult parts, getting the car to work reliably is a never-ending challenge that is both educational and infuriating. Our success last year was primarily thanks to Zephyr's [the name of Berkeley's car] improved reliability, which allowed us to spend more time on the track instead of the pits," stated Altenberg.
While this 1,700-mile Oregon Trail voyage won't require countless days of painstaking foot travel alongside covered wagons, success will rely on similar challenges of teamwork, ingenuity and great resolve.