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Appalachian State solar vehicle places second in international track race

By Megan Hayes

AUSTIN, TX.—Solar-powered Appalachian State University’s Team Sunergy took second place at the 2017 Formula Sun Grand Prix after thousands of hours of preparation and three days of intense strategy and track racing. The annual race, which took place this year on the Circuit of The Americas track in Austin, is an international collegiate endurance competition that sets the standards for and tests the limits of solar vehicle technology.

View larger imageDay 1: Appalachian’s Team Sunergy, led by graduate student Dan Blakeley of Olympia, Washington, began the track race in the pole position after quickly passing all components of an intense scrutineering inspection and assessment. Photo by Marie FreemanView larger imageDay 2: On a sweltering hot morning at the Circuit of The Americas racetrack, Lindsay Rudisill suffered a technical difficulty that dropped Team Sunergy’s status from first to fifth. During her driving shift, she recovered enough laps to bring the team into second before the end of her shift. Photo by Marie FreemanView larger imageDay 3: Team Sunergy celebrates a hard-earned victory at the awards ceremony for the 2017 Formula Sun Grand Prix. The team finished in second place, earning a podium spot for the second year in a row. This is the second year the team has competed in this race – in 2016 they finished the race in third place. Photo by Marie FreemanView larger imageTeam Sunergy accepts their second-place overall win at the ISF awards ceremony held at the University of Texas at Austin on July 8. Photo by Marie Freeman

“I am so proud of Team Sunergy and their vehicle, Apperion,” said Appalachian Chancellor Sheri N. Everts. “They have earned an international reputation for their solid work ethic and problem-solving skills in this grueling applied- design competition. But beyond that, they are developing sustainable transportation solutions we will see on the road in the near future.”

During the competition, presented by the Innovators Educational Foundation (ISF), teams race their solar-powered vehicles for eight hours each day over a three-day period. From July 5-8, collegiate teams from the United States and Canada logged 24 hours and hundreds of miles of driving on a closed course – more often frequented by Formula One racecars and drivers. Drivers race to complete the most laps possible, driving counterclockwise along the course, which includes a hill, several S-curves and hairpin turns. Overall placing is based on the highest total lap count.

Pop-up thunderstorms, heat indexes above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and mechanical and electrical component failures were all problem-solved on the fly by Appalachian’s interdisciplinary team of undergraduate and graduate students, who represent a wide variety of disciplines across the university, from the music industry to physics engineering.

Eighteen teams built vehicles to enter the competition and then were tested for technology and endurance. Three days prior to the race, each team had to pass a series of intense “scrutineering” inspections and vehicle- and driver-qualifying assessments. Scrutineering included solar array inspection, battery, structural- and mechanical-vehicle component testing, and driving tests to verify vehicle stability and braking capability.

On July 5, 12 teams that had passed scrutineering began the race. Team Sunergy qualified first in scrutineering, placing Apperion in the pole position for the start of the race, but in lap 17 a tension cable failure forced a tow back to the pit, costing the team 45 minutes and a drop to fourth place. Drivers Sam Biagioli and Duvey Rudow made solid gains on the course throughout the day with only one pit stop, and Team Sunergy ended the first day of track racing in third place, only three laps behind the University of California (UC), Berkeley and École de Technologie Supérieure, who were tied for first.

Day 2 saw Apperion with a solid start in second place, but their mechanical issue from Day 1 persisted. After a malfunction which took less than half of their Day 1-repair time, the team re-entered the track down in fifth place. Driver Lindsay Rudisill brought the team into second before the afternoon driver change, and Cristian Gulisano ended the day by placing and keeping the team in a solid second-place standing, while also clocking the second-fastest race lap with a time of 5 minutes, 24 seconds. An evening storm prevented the team from fully-charging Apperion’s arrays during the scheduled evening charging time.

The third and final day of the race, July 8, opened hot and sunny. Team Sunergy took advantage of the full morning array-charging time. Their strong start was met with solid competition from UC Berekely and Canadian teams, Polytechnique Montreal and École de Technologie Supérieure, who, along with Appalachian, had dominated the leaderboard throughout the competition. With less than 20 minutes to go in the race and in near 100-degree heat, Apperion blew a tire; the team had to execute a tire change at the furthest point away from the finish, on the 3.4-mile track. Biagioli ended the race only six laps behind UC Berkeley, with Polytechnique Montreal in third, 17 laps behind first position.

“We have had a wonderful, busy, tiring, but very, very successful few days,” said team leader Dan Blakeley, while taking a call from Chancellor Sheri N. Everts to congratulate the team. “The more than 5,000 hours of practice the team has put in to prepare [for this race],” made the difference, he said.

Team advisor and Sustainable Technology and the Built Environment professor and chair Dr. Brian Raichle noted, “Team Sunergy’s work ethic has impressed the other teams here. They are the first team here in the morning and the last one to leave at night. After they passed scrutineering, they could have had a day to rest, but they chose to spend it drilling pit stop scenarios.”

The July 8 evening award ceremony took place on the campus of University of Texas at Austin. Race Director Gail Lueck recognized UC Berkeley, Appalachian and Polytechnique Montreal for their overall first, second and third place wins, respectively. In addition to taking second place overall, Team Sunergy also won the event’s Safety Award, Fastest Egress Award, Array Award and the ISF Achievement Award, which, according to the ISF, is presented to the team “that best exemplifies the mission of ISF by raising awareness of the imperatives of sustainable transport through innovation, and promoting the concept of ‘Brain Sport.’”

In an earlier interview, Lueck commented on the collaborative spirit among teams, noting that Team Sunergy previously had been the beneficiary of the generosity of other teams, including Illinois State University. She noted that Appalachian’s team invited other students to shadow them at this competition, so they could gain some first-hand experience with the competition before entering it officially. “Now, at this event, we get to see App State paying it forward and taking on four North Carolina State members and showing them what it’s like to be here, helping build a car for the future,” said Lueck.

About Appalachian State University

Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.