MacGyver-inspired moment leads to a win for Vail Valley students
May 26, 2014
Noah Davis runs Energetics Education, a nonprofit that helps young people create solutions to cure the world’s energy issues. One step toward that is designing, building and racing solar-powered remote control cars.
Solar Rollers is their flagship program.
This year 10 teams from seven regional high schools competed.
The competition is broken into five segments: a team panel quiz, photovoltaic top speed (no battery), top speed with storage (sunlight plus battery), 2 laps on the course powered only by sunlight, main circuit race consisting of 30 minutes to charge empty batteries followed by 60 minutes of circuit racing.
EAGLE COUNTY — The clear skies were clouding up for Battle Mountain's Technology Student Association.
After racing to a big lead in the Solar Roller rally, a bunch of racing happened.
Their car was mangled after a competitor crashed into them and they were 40 laps down, working feverishly to get back on the track as other teams' remote control solar race cars sped past.
And that's when they had their MacGyver moment.
They replaced a non-replaceable broken king pin with the top of a drill bit and the spring from an ink pen.
Turns out there's more to winning a solar car race than stomping the accelerator and praying that Ra, the Egyptian sun god, is having a good day.
Bumps and breaks
Battle Mountain's strategy was uncomplicated yet classic racing. They planned to take the high road, said faculty advisor Daniel Lewandowski.
"The plan was to go faster and outrun other people, to stay away from them," Lewandowski explained patiently.
The problem, though, was that other racers didn't stay away from Battle Mountain.
Some put the pow in solar power, banging into each other like solar powered bumper cars. In NASCAR parlance, they "swapped some paint."
A horrific collision completely broke off Battle Mountain's right front wheel.
They had to redesign the wheel and rebuild it, right there beside the track on the concrete with limited tools and parts that were sort of designed for this, but not really.
You know how MacGyver could make an F-16 out of a box of paper clips, a two liter soda bottle and some duct tape? This was like that, only real.
The spring from an ink pen became a shock absorber. A carbide drill bit replaced a specialized pin in the steering mechanism.
While they were working, they fell further and further behind. Their large lead evaporated and by the time they were back on the track they were 40 laps behind.
Lap by lap they closed in. The car was running perfectly, cornering like it was on rails.
But then the front bumper started sagging and dragging on the track surface. That made it more like driving cattle than a race car.
They fixed the bumper three times, but it kept falling. Finally, down by three laps with time running short, it fell one last time. They stampeded for the car with team leader George Jouflas screaming, "Rip it off! Rip it off!" Lewandowski picked up the car and yanked the bumper off.
The car ran perfectly, but they were completely exposed. One more front-end collision would break the connection to the solar panels and end their day.
By that time, their batteries were gone, but so were everyone else's.
They were running at "renewable speed," the speed at which straight solar power would push the car.
Because their car was lighter and more efficient, their renewable speed was the fastest in the field.
Jouflas managed to steer clear of everyone, make up the three laps and when they won, they were eight laps ahead of their nearest competitor.
The ironic thing was, Jouflas didn't know they'd won and kept driving. He wears headphones plugged into classical music, so he couldn't hear the celebration.
"They started running over to me and I yelled for them to get out of the way. It took me a few seconds to realize we'd won," Jouflas said.
Jouflas piloted the car for 178 laps, over 60 minutes and an average speed of 25 mph. It'll go faster if you gear it right.
When it was over, the Solar Roller rally did what it was supposed to do. Jouflas announced to the cameras that he wants to be an engineer — and if his solar car designs are any indication, he is already. The rest of the team has similar aspirations.
"It was truly an educator's dream come true," Lewndowski said. "This was one of the best teaching experiences I have been a part of yet."
They'll be back to defend their title next year. In the meantime, the students are looking for sponsors to help them build a life-sized solar car next year out of an old VW Bug, golf cart batteries and solar panels.
MacGyver couldn't do that.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.