Solar cars race along the Oregon Trail

The Appalachian State solar car was charging at the El Rancho Village RV and Cabins in Wheatland last Tuesday while the team ate supper at Guadalajara’s Restaurant in Wheatland before coming back to El Rancho to camp out in tents for the evening. The team was a part of the American Solar Challenge which, this year designated a portion of the Oregon Trail as their racecourse. Bottom Picture: The solar car made by the students at the University of Illinois sped to the charging pad which was located 3 miles north of the El Rancho Village RV and Cabins last Tuesday night. The teams from the University of Illinois and Appalachian State both had cars in the race and camped for the evening in tents at El Rancho in Wheatland.

WHEATLAND – For the second time in less than a month people were traveling the Oregon Trail without the use of gas powered engines.

The first was a solo covered wagon and two accompanying riders who were reenacting the first Mormon journey from Illinois to Salt Lake City. The latter came in last week and it was actually part of a race that was going on with authentic racing cars.

The catch was, there was no gas or oil needed for the racing vehicles as the race was part of the American Solar Challenge. Students from Universities all over the country gathered in Independence, Missouri, which was where the race would begin.

The challenge this year was to race the historic Oregon Trail.

The competition which actually started the first day of college classes was set up to design, build, and drive solar-powered cars in a cross-country time/distance rally event. Teams compete over a 1,500-2,000 mile course between multiple cities across the country. The event has had over two decades of organized events in North America.

The main cities that the cars were shooting to stop at for checkpoints were Topeka, Kansas, Grand Island, Nebraska, Gering, Nebraska, Casper, Wyoming, Lander, Wyoming, Montpelier, Utah, Pocatello, Utah and the finish line at Twin Falls, Idaho.

Due to delays and technical difficulties, the race doesn’t always go as planned and some of the cars had to make an unscheduled stop at the El Rancho Village RV and Cabins for the night as drivers must start at 9 a.m. and must finish each leg at 6 p.m.

With the deadline coming close, the students began to google local campsites as they were passing through Guernsey and found accommodations at the RV Village in Wheatland. They had supper at Guadalajara’s Mexican Restaurant in Wheatland and then traveled back to the RV park to set up camp for the night.

Each of the two cars that were there, one from the University of Illinois and the other from Appalachian State University were actually solar cars competing in different categories, the UI car was a single passenger vehicle and the A-State car was a multi occupant vehicle (MOV).

The race which began July 9 from Independence, Missouri finished up last Saturday in Twin Falls, Idaho.

According to the American Solar Challenge Website, the 2022 Event is once again a distance-based competition. The primary goal is to compelete the 1470 mile base route, however teams will have numerous opportuntities to complete additional optional loop segments to gain addition miles (or person miles for Multi-Occupant Vehicles) which will help increase their ranking.

Distance completed was updated at each stage stop & checkpoint. Official time, penalties, and MOV scores were updated at the end of each stage.

“There are lots smaller teams than us,” said University of Illinois student media director Aaryaman Patel who was part of the team accompanying the SOV car. “I think ours may be the biggest team. We have over 100 people in our solar club, but we chose to take 27 people to travel with our race car.”

Out of the multiple people that join these solar clubs each year at their prospective colleges, the team that is chosen to be a part of the actual race is determined upon performance in the club and familiarity with the car during the year. The teams are made up of engineering students, mechanics, electrical technicians, media people and drivers. Each team will have between 3 and 5 drivers who will actually drive the vehicles. Each vehicle is built from the ground up and built specifically to be a solar vehicle.

The rest will accompany the car, following in a Caravan in school vans and other vehicles.

“The first thing about being a part of our team is that you don’t need any prior knowledge to be a part of it,” Patel said. “At the beginning of every academic year we have what we call ‘quad day’ where all the student organizations gather in one place and both incoming students and other current students can look around and see which organizations they find interesting. We also do a lot of outreach events. There are no pre-requirements. If you are passionate, interested in the project and are willing to be a part of this committed group, we are interested in them. It’s an extremely cool project.”

The University of Illinois placed sixth in their SOV category and missed two checkpoints due to technical difficulties that the vehicle encountered.

The MOV vehicle that was camping in Wheatland for the night was from Appalachian State University and placed second in the final competition.

Kyla Willoughby, student media director for the project and part of the traveling team with the ‘828’ car said that she was extremely proud of the team that has placed first place last year and  second place this year in spite of being one of the smaller schools that participates in the race each year.

“Our car is a student-built car built in 2018 and designed and built in eight months,” North Carolina native and college senior Willoughby said. “This is its third race and it’s called ‘Rose Running on Solar Energy.’ The race is awesome, but one of the main challenges is juggling being a media lead and also being one of our four drivers.”

The App-State team has 20 accompanying members who travel with the vehicle in the race.

“One of our accompanying vans actually got side-swiped right after we left Kansas,” Willoughby said. “So sometimes the challenges are not just with the solar vehicles, but also the gas-powered vehicles that the team travels in.”

Single Occupant Vehicle (SOV) Class

The single occupant class is scored solely on miles driven. The team that completes the most miles will win the event. Stage winners are also determined by miles driven on that stage. In the event of a tie, elapsed time is the tie-breaker.

Multi-Occupant Vehicle (MOV) Class

Multi-Occupant vehicles are scored on a variety of factors including person-miles driven, their practicality score, amount of external energy used, and whether they maintain the 35mph target speed. For the overall event winner all of these factors are used. For individual stage winners only person-miles and target speed are considered. See our vehicle classes page for more info on class scoring.

This year’s winners of The Oregon Trail race were:

SOV Class

1st Place: #4 MIT
2nd Place: #32 Principia
3rd Place: #3 Kentucky

MOV Class Scores

1st Place: #32 Minnesota
2nd Place: #828 App State
3rd Place: #55 Poly Montreal


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