Lightning strike slows Iowa State's solar car team in Texas competition

AMES, Iowa - Members of Team PrISUm were diligently working on their solar car's battery system when lightning struck nearby.

It was the eve of the May 31-June 5 Formula Sun Grand Prix at the Motorsport Ranch in Cresson, Texas. The team had spent two weeks repairing and upgrading the car's battery pack and brakes. The race's technical inspections had all gone well. The team was making pre-race adjustments to the car's battery system.

Things were looking good for the endurance race for student-designed and student-built solar cars. Teams would race 10 hours per day for three days; most total laps would win.

And kaboom.

The nearby lightning strike took out the car's battery protection system and that eventually destroyed a circuit board.

The damage cost the team an entire day on track. But Wade Johanns, a senior from Mason City who's studying aerospace engineering and is the team's assistant project director, said team members kept working on finding parts and making repairs. The team put Sol Invictus, its $400,000, 1,400-watt solar car, on track with three hours to go on the second day of racing. The team was able to put in a full 10 hours of racing the next day.

The team completed 47 laps its first day on track and 157 the next day. That was good enough for seventh place among the nine teams that completed laps.

Only the competition winner - the University of Minnesota - completed more laps in one day than the Iowa State team.

"If we had only been on the track two hours earlier we would have finished really far up the grid," said Patrick Sanderson, a junior from Iowa City who's studying mechanical engineering and is the team's project director. "This was still a solid performance for racing less than half the race."

Sure, Johanns said, the finish was disappointing.

"But it was also a lot of fun," he said. "Once we fixed everything, we realized how competitive we were."

Team PrISUm will now begin the long process of designing and building a new car for competition in 2010.