Letting the Sun Shine In on IndyCar

Stefan Wilson brings new sponsor American Solar Energy Society to IndyCar. [photo courtesy]

Stefan Wilson brings new sponsor American Solar Energy Society to IndyCar.  [photo courtesy]


Indianapolis — February 1, 2016

Bending new ideas to the purposes of speed has long been the engineering goal and technological triumph of IndyCar racing and its most-heralded event the Indianapolis 500.

Consider this: the first use of the rear-view mirror was on the winning car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911. A simple ladies’ compact mirror gave driver Ray Harroun a competitive weight advantage (he did not need a spotter riding alongside to identify cars approaching his from the rear) and yielded a significant safety improvement that was quickly adapted to use on the public highway.

More recently we have seen in open-wheel racing internationally the harvesting of heat during braking to enhance performance, easily one of the most interesting schemes of the early third millennium to capture kinetic energy and transform it into horsepower.

Now, with a bold move to bring solar power into the racing vocabulary, Stefan Wilson and solar’s professional advocacy organization the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) are bringing several innovations to the racetrack that may be the dawn of a new era of technological advancement surrounding the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The desire to bring solar energy onto the pit lane was an idea championed by Stefan’s late brother and IndyCar winner Justin Wilson. As the largest single renewable energy source available to planet Earth, solar has the capacity to “inspire an era of energy innovation and speed the transition to a sustainable energy economy” according to ASES.

Before you start imagining cars with huge energy-catching waffle-panels attached to their uppers circulating the racetrack, think conventionally and stationary with solar-powered charging stations, lights, and other electronic assets that might power the garages of Gasoline Alley and illuminate the route to a powerful alternative to coal, oil and nuclear resources. In fact, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a step ahead of you, already sourcing some of its power needs with a 9 MW solar farm operating nearby that boasts 39,312 solar panels cranking out solar-sourced watts for the Brickyard.

Let’s not dismiss the idea of solar race cars, though. The first solar car race was the Tour de Sol in 1985 which led to several similar races in Europe, USA and Australia. The two most notable solar car distance races running today are the World Solar Challenge held in remote Australia, and the American Solar Challenge run on North American highways — in its most recent event conducted in 2014 along a course from Austin, TX to Minneapolis, MN and won by an engineering team from the University of Michigan.

Both the Federation Internationale d’Automobile (FIA) and the Guinness Book of World Records have already recorded solar vehicle speeds in the neighborhood of the 55 mph speed limit many Americans follow in metropolitan areas of this country.

Design-wise these vehicles generally exhibit a small driver-cockpit beneath a closed canopy in the middle of a curved wing-like array, entirely covered in cells, with 3 wheels. However, there is a new “Cruiser Class” of competition solar vehicle that mandates four wheels and upright seating for passengers, and is judged on a number of factors including time, payload, passenger miles, and external energy use.

Just like in today’s competitive automobile racing, teams must consider strategic implications such as energy consumption and race speed optimization with on-board telemetry that relays vehicle performance data to a crew chief (generally traveling in a support vehicle behind the competitors.)

Minor changes in elevation and in course also require thoughtful analysis, as the apparent position of the sun in the sky and the vehicle’s orientation to the sun can dramatically change the amount of power needed to stay the course.

Finally successful solar car racing requires a facile understanding of the weather and reliable weather forecasting, in order to predict the power input to the vehicle from the sun during each race day.

In other words, a solar race car future is not as far-fetched or as different from the way we race today as you might first imagine.



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