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the Gauntlet

The long road home

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"Speed up," a voice crackled over the on-board CB. "Please speed up, lead car."

This was a striking introduction to the product of hundreds of sleep-deprived and malnourished hours spent by students on the University of Calgary Solar Car Team.

I have been invited by the team to ride along as an embedded member, providing full photographic and written coverage of the North American Solar Challenge 2005, much as a journalist might join a military platoon to cover a war in the Middle East. The primary difference, as put by Team Manager Rashaad Sader, would be the "slave labour" they'd be getting in return.

The race began in Austin, Texas on Sun., Jul. 17 and ends back home in Calgary on Wed., Jul. 27. Yet, there were plenty of things that needed to happen before the race even started. The team needed to put the car through qualification tests, including a small manoeuverability course, and timed trials. They also had to get the car, named "Soleon," to Texas in the first place. Soleon is the number 65 car.

Sitting in the back seat of a minivan labelled "Lead," my backward gaze was met by a look of awkward calm from Soleon driver Murtaza Amirali. His voice lacked the distress one might expect to have when staring at a vehicle that was at least quadruple the weight of his own and whose rear bumper aligned almost perfectly with his forehead, now about 15 feet behind and three and a half feet below where I was currently watching. One of four U of C students picked to pilot the car, Amirali, 23, is working towards a degree in biological science.

Admittedly, the first thing that came to mind when hearing the words "solar car race" strung together was equivalent to that of tortoises slowly cooking away on a highway wearing scarves and WWI pilot's goggles (I learned later that this assumption may have been appropriate about 15 years ago); gung ho, but with nowhere to go. Imagine the surprise, then, of a naïve student journalist who was witnessing this space-age magic carpet catching up to our vehicle on Deerfoot Trail and wanting to speed up. The sleek, shiny carapace looked more like a prop from a George Lucas movie than an actual car as it hovered low across the asphalt on three bicycle-thin wheels.

The pre-departure, on-road test was going smoothly, a fact proven by the car's handling on Deerfoot Trail in the speedy dregs of rush hour traffic.

"We've gotten it up to 120, but we think it could go up to 140," explained 23 year-old geology student and Soleon driver Kyle Rebryna.

Drivers in the race are limited to six hours per day and remain in constant radio contact with the tactical side of the team in trailing support vehicles.

All teams are limited to the legal rules of the road, including posted speed limits. The Soleon team has been setting and meeting an average goal of 70 kilometres per hour during the first few days of the race.

Of course, before any of this, the team needed to actually build the car.

The Whole Story

"Most teams take two years," said Sader matter-of-factly. "We did it in nine months."

This is the point that makes the U of C's position in the 2005 North American Solar Challenge so unique. They've been working on their car less than half the time other teams have, and are going head to head with the best.

"Two weeks ago today, we had nothing," Sader added.

In September 2004, when the U of C Schulich School of Engin-eering received word the North American Solar Challenge was finishing in its home city, electrical and computer engineering professor Dr. Josh Leon knew the U of C needed to put a team on the track. Very soon thereafter, Sader took it upon himself to lead a team to attempt the nearly impossible by finishing a solar car in nine months.

The team began construction of a prototype car in January of 2005 with the intent to train and test drivers, as well as figure out logistical issues before the construction of the final product. Later, the team would outsource the actual construction of the carbon fibre and Kevlar shell of the car to a company in Gander, Newfoundland.

While the team started counting down the weeks in early June, the shell pieces (which comprise the majority of the solar car's body), were long overdue to arrive. It wasn't until Sader got off his plane in Gander that he learned how severe the situation was; the manufacturing had barely begun. He immediately called in two other team members, driver Kyle Rebryna and Business Manager Garett Brett to oversee the completion and transportation of the shell.

For the remaining two weeks before the planned departure date for Austin, the team traded sleep for success to get the car operational and ready to travel the more than 2,000 long miles to the Texan highways.

Somehow the team- an appropriate label for this cohesive group- managed to pull through, and conquered their greatest challenge for the race: time.

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