Iowa State solar car team ready to race at 100th anniversary of Indianapolis 500

AMES, Iowa - Two of the student-engineers on Team PrISUm opened up the campus garage and pointed out the improvements they've been making to Anthelion.

Iowa State University's $250,000 solar race car had a tough time during last summer's American Solar Challenge, a 1,100-mile race from Oklahoma to Illinois for student-designed and student-built solar race cars. Chronic electrical problems kept Anthelion (the car is named after the rare halo that can appear opposite the sun) at the side of the road for repairs. But, once the electronics were sorted after a week of racing, the three-wheel car was at the speed limit.

The team thinks it can keep the car at the limit during the Formula Sun Grand Prix May 2-7 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The rayce - as solar racers like to call it - is part of the speedway's Emerging Tech Day, a special event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

"I think we have a shot at being in the top three or four," said Evan Stumpges, a team leader and a senior from Pauma Valley, Calif., who's majoring in mechanical engineering.

That confidence comes from several revisions to most of the car's electronics boards. Those revisions were recently road tested by driving the car from campus to Mason City and back. The next day the car went to Ankeny and back. And more tests are expected before the team leaves for Indianapolis.

"The systems are looking really good," Stumpges said.

And that should mean lots of laps around a nearly one-mile section of the speedway's road course. The winning team will run the most laps during three full days of racing.

"It really comes down to who has the most reliable car and, after that, who has the fastest car," Stumpges said.

This time, Stumpges thinks Iowa State's car will be reliable and fast from green to checkered flags.

As they prepare Anthelion for its final race, team members are already designing a new car for the 2012 cross-country race.

Zach Noel, a freshman team member from Denison who's studying aerospace engineering, was recently on a team computer working on the new design. The 2012 car will be slightly smaller because race rules have reduced the size of solar arrays and battery packs.

And so Noel said the team is engineering a car that counters the resulting reduction of power with less aerodynamic drag, rolling resistance and weight.

The current challenge is designing slimmer fairings - aerodynamic wheel covers - that slice through the air while the wheel openings at the bottom mechanically shift as the wheels steer right and left.

"Our next car will be more of an evolution of Anthelion than a revolution," Stumpges said. "Anthelion represented a major step forward from the previous car. This time around we're better served making enhancements to our existing platform and reserving more time for testing and refinement."

But first, the team has one last chance to demonstrate that Anthelion can be a reliable and fast solar race car.