Race the Sun: where are they now?

The 1996 movie Race the Sun is almost sacred in the solar car racing community. It fictionalises the true story of a Hawaiian high school team racing in the World Solar Challenge in Australia. But where is the cast now?

Teachers

  • Halle Berry (Sandra Beecher): became a major star, playing Storm in X-Men, Ginger Knowles in Swordfish, and many other roles.
  • Jim Belushi (Frank Machi): already well known in 1996, he has acted in multiple later films, such as The Ghost Writer.

Left: Halle Berry at the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con (cropped from a photo by Gage Skidmore); Centre: Pritzker School of Medicine in Chicago, where Sara Tanaka did her initial medical training; Right: Casey Affleck in 2016 (cropped from a photo by Bex Walton)

Solar Car Race Team

  • Casey Affleck (Daniel Webster): has acted in multiple films. For his role in Manchester by the Sea, he won several awards.
  • Eliza Dushku (Cindy Johnson): continued on to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and various film and TV work. In later years, she became politically active.
  • Anthony Ruivivar (Eduardo Braz): has acted in various films and has frequently played policemen on television.
  • Sara Tanaka (Uni Kakamura): graduated in Medicine from the University of Chicago in 2008, and then specialised in cardiology. She now practices, I believe, in New York.
  • Dion Basco (Marco Quito): had a few other acting roles.
  • J. Moki Cho (Gilbert Tutu): became a musician, and is on Instagram and on YouTube.
  • Nadja Pionilla (Oni Nagano): had a few other acting roles, and is on Twitter.
  • Adriane Napualani Uganiza (Luana Kanahele): I don’t know what happened to her.

Other Characters

  • Steve Zahn (Hans Kooiman): various film and TV work, including a role as an ape in War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).
  • Joel Edgerton (Steve Fryman): acted in multiple films, including playing the young Owen Lars in several Star Wars films.
  • Kevin Tighe (Jack Fryman): acted in film and television, as well as on stage.
  • Bill Hunter (Commissioner Hawkes): after acting in numerous films, he died in 2011.
  • Jeff Truman (Ed Webster): after a career of acting and writing, he died in 2014.

With the obvious exceptions, I would like to see one of these people at the start (or finish) of a major solar car race.


Solar racing basics revisited

Last year I blogged this poster of solar racing basics. Things have changed slightly, but I think it might still be useful for new teams. Here are the 10 posts explaining it:

  1. Classes
  2. Aerodynamics
  3. Electrics
  4. Chassis
  5. Mechanics
  6. Race Strategy
  7. Logistics
  8. Sponsorship
  9. Media
  10. Map for the BWSC

Click to zoom / Image credits: Agoria Solar Team (wind tunnel), American Solar Challenge (chassis), Solar Team Eindhoven (Cruiser car), mostdece.blogspot.com (battery & motor), Brunel Solar Team (race strategy), public domain (lower right 3), Anthony Dekker (remaining 7).


Solar Car META-Teams

In this post, I want to distinguish solar car teams from what I’m calling “meta-teams.” The core team is made up of the students who build and race the car, including the sponsorship, media, and logistics sub-teams. The meta-team is everybody else.


The team from Delft celebrating their 2017 WSC win in the fountain (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Alumni

The most important part of the meta-team may be the team alumni. These former members of the team have valuable experience, and often retain a strong interest in the ongoing team. Indeed, in some cases, “you can’t chase them off with a stick” (to quote one of the Dutch teams). Tapping into alumni expertise is especially important in the Dutch model, where each race cycle starts with a brand-new team of novices.

Many solar car teams would probably benefit from improved alumni relations – things like a database of alumni contact details, or regular social events with alumni.

Recruitment Panels

The Dutch model of solar car teams also includes a formal recruitment process for the new team. The recruitment panel includes alumni, but it may also contain professional HR staff brought in for the occasion.

Hands-On Sponsors

Solar car teams all rely on sponsorship, but some sponsors are more hands-on than others. In-kind sponsors offering a product or service may also provide training in using that product or service, and this can be extremely valuable.

Sponsors may also provide business help. In 2017, the team from Delft had their battery pack stranded in Singapore; the airline refused to carry it further. This could have been a catastrophe, but they reached out to their major sponsor, who was able to help them negotiate a solution involving road transport to another city, and a flight with another airline.


An artist’s view of Delft’s 2017 emergency battery flight (photo: Vattenfall Solar Team)

Faculty Advisors and University Support Staff

Faculty advisors are university staff who provide technical engineering advice. Some teams rely on them more than others, but the WSC’s requirement for a “certifying engineer” means that every team needs at least one.

Complementing the faculty advisors are university support staff who provide help with sponsorship, media, and logistics. The App State team lists university support staff and faculty advisors together on their website.

Coaches

Coaches accompany teams into the field, and assist with issues of team dynamics and morale. Dutch teams have especially benefited from having coaches.


The late Wubbo Ockels coached the team from Delft for several years (photo: Jorrit Lousberg); Erik is the coach for Top Dutch Solar Racing (photo: TDSR)

Photographers and Other Technical Specialists

Several teams will bring in a professional photographer for the race. These have included Jorrit Lousberg (Vattenfall/Delft), Hans-Peter van Velthoven (Vattenfall/Delft), Bart van Overbeeke (Eindhoven), and Jerome Wassenaar (Twente).

Other technical specialists are also sometimes brought in. In 2013, Solar Team Twente took along a weatherman from the Joint Meteorological Group of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. In 2015, the Belgian team took along a similar expert from the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium (who also blogged his experiences).

Who is on your meta-team?


Solar Racing Basics: Map

Finishing up the analysis of my Solar Racing Basics Poster (see this tag), the central portion of the poster shows the route of the World Solar Challenge (although there will be no WSC until 2023). The race traditionally starts in Darwin and finishes in Adelaide, with nine compulsory 30-minute control stops in Katherine, Daly Waters, Tennant Creek, Barrow Creek, Alice Springs, Kulgera, Coober Pedy, Glendambo, and Port Augusta (solid white dots on the map). There is also rest time between 17:00 and 8:00 each night.

To read more about the route, see this detailed post.


Click to zoom / Image credits: Agoria Solar Team (wind tunnel), American Solar Challenge (chassis), Solar Team Eindhoven (Cruiser car), mostdece.blogspot.com (battery & motor), Vattenfall Solar Team (race strategy), public domain (lower right 3), Anthony Dekker (remaining 7).


Solar Racing Basics: Media


Click to zoom / Public domain image

Continuing the analysis of my Solar Racing Basics Poster (see this tag), documenting the construction and racing of the car is important for the sponsors, for the fans, and for the team itself. Teams that want good sponsorship need a good media subteam. Good media helps a team convince potential sponsors that they are legitimate, and can provide a quid pro quo to existing sponsors. Solar Team Twente from the Netherlands is an example of a team with good media. In particular, they have a website and six kinds of social media:  .

Often the media subteam includes a specialist photographer, such as Jorrit Lousberg (Vattenfall/Delft), Hans-Peter van Velthoven (Vattenfall/Delft), Bart van Overbeeke (Eindhoven), Jerome Wassenaar (Twente), or Joseph Xu (Michigan).

In addition, media subteams will often “place” stories in local newspapers. It’s big news in Springfield, population 24,000 (to pick an imaginary example), that a young man or woman from the town is off to race a solar car on the other side of the world. Equally, it’s big news for Dutch-language media in Australia, such as SBS, that Dutch solar car teams have arrived in the country (and ditto for Italian, Turkish, and several other languages).

Media can also act as damage limitation in a crisis. In 2017, the Persian Gazelle 4 car from the University of Tehran was heavily damaged in transit, and was unable to race, leaving the team with very little to show for all their hard work. In 2019, NunaX from Vattenfall/Delft Solar Team was totally destroyed by fire during the race, but the team could still point to the copious media of the car and say, with justified pride, “we built that”:  .

It is, of course, important that teams not make classic media errors, such as constantly changing social media “handles,” retiring social media channels without proper announcement, not keeping the website up to date, or posting embarrassing photographs that you wouldn’t want a potential sponsor to see.

To read more:


Solar Racing Basics: Sponsorship


Click to zoom / Public domain image

Continuing the analysis of my Solar Racing Basics Poster (see this tag), the cost of logistics, and of building a car, mean that sponsorship is critical. There are three main kinds:

  • Cash sponsorship from companies
  • In-kind sponsorship (free or reduced-price products and services) from companies
  • Crowdfunding (donations)

Major cash sponsors are often acknowledged in the name of the team, e.g. Vattenfall, Agoria, or Top Dutch (the latter is a marketing campaign for the three northern provinces of the Netherlands). Alternatively, major cash sponsors can be acknowledged in the name of the car, e.g. Covestro Sonnenwagen from Sonnenwagen Aachen, thyssenkrupp blue.cruiser from Bochum, or Unlimited (Western Sydney University motto) from Western Sydney Solar Team.

In-kind sponsors often appreciate positive media coverage of the product or service, or photographs of the product or service in use.

Crowdfunding can be particularly promising when a team effectively represents a nation, region, or state, e.g. Agoria (Belgium), EcoPhoton (Malaysia), STC (Thailand), Hyadi (Mexico), or Top Dutch (three northern provinces of the Netherlands).

 
Click to zoom / Image credits: Anthony Dekker (Agoria’s sponsor logos on the side of their car and Western Sydney’s Unlimited 3.0 painted in their university’s colour)

To read more, see these posts from from team Arrow:


Solar Racing Basics: Logistics


Click to zoom / Public domain image

Even though the World SolarChallenge has been cancelled for 2021, I thought it worthwhile to continue the analysis of my Solar Racing Basics Poster (see this tag). There is an old military saying that “amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” The logistics of bringing a car and a team to Australia can be surprisingly difficult, and if you can’t do that, it really doesn’t matter how good the car is. Issues include:

  • Complexities of international freight (especially when batteries are classed as “dangerous goods”)
  • Australian customs and biosecurity regulations
  • Tickets and visas for the team
  • Covid-related regulations
  • Renting equipment and support vehicles in Australia
  • Having enough people legally permitted to drive in Australia (especially driving rental vehicles and trucks)
  • Accomodation in Australia (including tents for the Outback during the race)
  • Food in Australia (especially food in the Outback)
  • Insurance (of various kinds)
  • Other issues noted in the official Team Manager’s Guide

This comment from the Belgian team in 2017 highlights the complexity of just one issue:

“ ‘Voor mij is het de eerste keer dat ik voor zo een uitdaging sta,’ zegt logistiek manager Pieter Galle uit Leuven. ‘Het batterijpakket versturen is de grootste uitdaging voor het team. De batterijcellen die wij gebruiken zijn vaak niet toegelaten op vluchten. Om deze toch te kunnen versturen moeten er veel veiligheidsmaatregelen getroffen worden. Gelukkig heeft DHL Global Forwarding, in samenwerking met Deufol als verpakker van de goederen en batterijen alles tot in de puntjes kunnen regelen, zodat wij ons met het team volledig op het wereldkampioenschap konden concentreren.’ ”

(Translation: “ ‘It’s the first time I’ve faced a challenge like this,’ says logistics manager Pieter Galle from Leuven. ‘Transporting the battery pack was the biggest challenge for the team. The batteries we use are often forbidden on flights. To be able to send them, many safety measures need to be taken. Fortunately, DHL Global Forwarding, in cooperation with Deufol our packer, has managed all the details, making it possible for us to focus our attention on the world championship.’ ”)

To read more, see this post from Solar Team Twente and this 2016 solar car conference presentation.


Solar Racing Basics: Race Strategy


Click to zoom / Image credit: Vattenfall/Nuon/Delft Solar Team

Continuing the analysis of my Solar Racing Basics Poster (see this tag), it’s important to remember that the “best” car doesn’t always win the race. The work of the strategy subteam in the “chase vehicle” is also critically important. During the race, this subteam constantly calculates the best speed for the conditions, taking into account weather, road conditions, and existing battery charge. This includes deciding where it is worth speeding up to avoid upcoming bad weather. Making the right decision can be critical – the chart below (click to zoom) summarises the Challenger Class of the 2017 World Solar Challenge:

Road distance in this chart is from left to right, and the vertical axis shows how fast teams are (higher is slower, and the faint dashed lines show specific speeds). Teams 15 (Western Sydney University) and 88 (Kogakuin) were keeping up with the leaders, but made what in hindsight was the wrong decision when bad weather loomed, losing 6 or 7 hours as a result. Making the right decision under these circumstances is very difficult, however, and relies on good weather prediction services (or, as some teams have done in the past, on taking a meteorologist along).

 
Click to zoom / Image credits: NASA (unsettled weather across central Australia, 2013) and Vattenfall/Nuon/Delft Solar Team (interior of their chase vehicle for the 2011 World Solar Challenge)

In the Cruiser class, race strategy also includes deciding how many passengers to carry (more points, but more weight), and how much to recharge from the grid at stage stops (more energy, but fewer points). That makes Cruiser strategy an even more difficult problem.

To read more, see this post on Challenger strategy which I wrote in 2018.


Solar Racing Basics: Mechanics


Click to zoom / Image credit: Anthony Dekker

Continuing the analysis of my Solar Racing Basics Poster (see this tag), let us look at the mechanical aspects of solar cars. In order to drive, the car obviously needs steering (up until 2019, four-wheel steering was allowed, and it had some advantages). Brakes are essential too, of course. The car also needs a suspension, which allows individual wheels to move up and down (a double wishbone suspension is common for the front wheels). Attached to the suspension are shock absorbers and springs.

The mechanical parts of the car need to be strong, but not too heavy. They need to be able to survive the vibration that comes from driving more than 3,000 kilometres along the Stuart Highway (balancing strength and weight can lead to some roadside repairs, as in this Vattenfall/Delft video). And in small or narrow cars, considerable creativity is needed to fit all the mechanical components inside!

 
Click to zoom / Image credits: Agoria Solar Team (Agoria’s award-winning partial four-wheel steering, 2017) and Anthony Dekker (interior of Twente’s exceptionally tiny RED E showing the suspension, 2019)

To read more, see see this post about brakes and this post about suspension and steering by Nick Elderfield of the University of Calgary Solar Car Team.


Solar Racing Basics: Chassis


Click to zoom / Image credit: American Solar Challenge

Continuing the analysis of my Solar Racing Basics Poster (see this tag), solar cars have to keep their driver safe and the vehicle in one piece. There are two basic ways of doing this. First, a car can have a carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer body over a metal chassis. For example, Bochum’s thyssenkrupp blue.cruiser (below) is supported by a tubular frame of ultrahigh-strength steel. Second, a car can have a load-bearing “monocoque” body, possibly also of carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer. Carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer is strong for its weight, and this is significant, since a noticeable amount of energy in a solar car (though less than aerodynamic drag) is lost in rolling resistance. The rolling resistance of a car is proportional to its weight (it also depends on the quality of the tires), and so reducing weight makes the car faster. In 2019, the lightest solar car (from Western Sydney) weighed just 116.8 kg without the driver.

Cars may include a “roll bar” or “roll cage” to protect the driver in addition to the monocoque body. This “roll bar” or “roll cage” may be made of metal tubes, or it may also be made of carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer. A close look at unpainted carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer shows the “chequerboard” pattern of carbon-fibre “cloth” embedded inside transparent epoxy polymer (as in the body and roll bar of Durham’s Ortus, also below).

 
Click to zoom / Image credits: Anthony Dekker (Bochum’s thyssenkrupp blue.cruiser and the interior of Durham’s Ortus)

To read more, see see this post about car body and chassis by Nick Elderfield of the University of Calgary Solar Car Team, this Instagram post about composite materials by MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team, and this UMNSVP wiki on Composite Chassis Design.