Slow and Steady 'Round the Texas Motor Speedway at the Solar Car Challenge

Under the baking sky at the Texas Motor Speedway, a small, rotund man adjusted his straw hat and tightened his grip on a green flag nearly half as tall as he was. "Houston Lady Racers, you've got 30 seconds," he said to the high-school aged girls surrounding him. They flanked their solar car, the Sundancer II, a sleek silver machine with neon green and pink accents that looked like a go-kart's more sophisticated older cousin.

"We're very proud of y'all," added the man in the straw hat, beaming at the driver, Hillary Colbert, 17.

"Thank you," she said, adjusting the floppy canvas hat sitting atop her brown braids. She took a deep breath, jutted out her chin and smiled hugely.

The man counted down from five, waved his green flag and shouted, "Good luck to you, Houston Lady Racers!" With that, Colbert was off, blazing around the track -- at about 20 miles an hour.

Although all the cars in the Solar Car Challenge can reach top speeds of around 50, they usually don't go above 25. This year's Challenge, the 16th, is more a test of stamina than speed, a four-day-long closed-track competition between 19 teams of high school students from all around the country.

Every other year, the Challenge is a cross-country race; in 2010, the teams went from Dallas to Boulder, Colorado. But this year, with the race taking place in the luridly hot fishbowl of the Speedway, the challenges are a little different. Navigation isn't an issue, or dodging full-grown cars on the highway -- last year someone rear-ended one of the solar cars, though no damage was done to either machine or driver -- but brute endurance is, as the teams compete to see who can make the most laps over the course of the four days.

Around 2 yesterday afternoon, the cars lined up to begin the first half-day of racing. As the team from Walnut Valley, California, waited, they pointed out the features of their car, a balsa wood-and-fiberglass construction with a motor mounted on a motorcycle fork in the back, the whole thing salvaged from pieces of other vehicles. Twin drawings of turtles adorned both sides of the car. "It's our mascot," somebody explained. "Slow and steady wins the race, you know?"

Nearly everyone at this year's Challenge had been building and racing solar cars for at least a couple years; most of them got hooked in a shop class, where they excelled at electrical engineering assignments and were offered the opportunity to join the school's team. Walnut Valley senior Eric Chen, 17, said he builds and races solar cars "for the team feeling."

"There's no prince or princess sitting there acting pretty," he said. When they're not on the track, they entertain themselves by telling nonsensical jokes ("What's one plus one? Fish") and trading building tips with other teams.

Asked if they get nervous before a race, the entire 17-person team shouted, "No!" They pointed over at their driver, Michael Tlo, 17, who sat in the car looking calm and composed, wearing mirrored sunglasses and a large fisherman's hat. He was so relaxed, in fact, that he proved to be asleep. His teammates gently prodded him awake as they rolled towards the starting line.

Nearby, the crew from Stony Point High School, out of Round Rock, were worried about just two things, according to their unofficial spokesman: "crashing and holding the pee in." Bathroom breaks eat away at precious driving time.

"I had an issue earlier," said another one of the team members darkly, without elaboration.

But heat was the biggest worry of all. "They told us the track is at like 150 degrees," added another Stony Pointer. At that temperature, tire blowouts can be a real threat, as well as heat exhaustion.

All the team captains test their drivers intermittently to make sure their brains aren't scrambling from the heat, said Preston Collins, 18, of the Liberty Christian team, one of the three Dallas-area schools competing.

"We ask him questions," Collins explained -- apart from the Houston Lady Racers, high-school level solar car racing could fairly be called a male-dominated sport. "His name, his favorite colors, if he likes girls or not."

"If he doesn't respond," he continued, "Or if he responds out of character," they know something's wrong.

Liberty Christian already faced a minor setback in training last week, as they were doing laps around the neighborhood. Their motor caught on fire, and all four batteries exploded spectacularly. "I touched a positive to a negative putting the motor in," team member Cameron Balkey said sheepishly. They replaced it, a cost of $1,000 out of team budget, and the car was looking strong.

"We're gonna have our swag on all four days," said Collins confidently. He looked over a blond woman hurrying towards the tent. "Hey, Mom," he said.

"Will somebody calculate how fast he's going?" interrupted a sweaty father irritably, one of the team's adult sponsors. Down the line of tents, every other team was calculating speed as well, tracking laps, eying the tires.

"Don't go across that white line," muttered a man urgently into a walkie-talkie, sitting beneath a rainbow-colored umbrella. About 40 people sat in the stands watching the cars circle, occasionally walking across the black asphalt to stand in front of huge Port-A-Cool fans blowing damp, sneaker-smelling cold air. Even the grass in the center of the raceway radiated warmth.

Dr. Lehman Marks, who created the Challenge, stood underneath the white tent where a fleet of college-aged interns sat with computers, tracking the laps of each car. He's been an earth science teacher in the Dallas Community College system for the last 43 years, and created the event to encourage high school students to get into engineering.

"I had students who didn't care about reading a book," he explained. "They needed a hook to get involved in science. So I decided to offer younger students the opportunity to gain some actual practical experience, by designing, engineering, building and racing their own solar cars." He adjusted his huge silver state of Texas belt buckle and pushed his straw hat back on his head, waving a hand at the track. "Nobody really knew high school kids could do this. Now just look at 'em."

Apart from the fact that every car on the track had solar panels, they all looked a little different. Those in the beginners-level "Classic" division -- most of the teams -- have simple Etek motors that operate with friction. Three teams are competing against one another in the intermediate Open Category and two in the Advanced. There, the motors can run up to $10,000, and most teams need sponsorship to help build their cars.

"It's a real team effort," said Felipe Vasquez, one of this year's judges. He started racing for the Mexico City team when he was just 15. Now 27, he'd just flown back from his sister's wedding in Mexico to be there for the race's opening day. "They all have to collaborate and work together," he said, looking at the teams rolling onto the track one at a time. "If you don't have that, you're not going to make it here. That's the real spirit of solar car racing. It's like a big family."

Underneath the Houston Lady Racers tent, Sydney Harrell, 16, watched her driver progress around the circuit with a professional eye. They've been training in this car since the end of the school year, she said. Her high school has been participating in the competition for the last 10 years, and over time has formed both a men's and a women's team (according to Dr. Marks, "the boys started not letting the girls do things, so, girl power, they split. I think it's brilliant.") A lot of people comment on the fact that they're the only all-female team in the race, she said.

"I guess they thought we couldn't do it," she said. She glanced back out on the track, where the Sundancer II had just pulled ahead of another car, grinned, and didn't have to say anything more.

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