By late July most area teenagers have settled into a summer routine, often involving catching up on TV shows, hanging out with friends, going to the beach, maybe even summer reading assignments. But for the 12 young men on Devon Prep’s solar car team, The Devon Panel, all of that had to wait. The end of July is when they learn if all their hard work during the school year will pay off. This July it did.
The Devon Panel recently earned a third place trophy in the 2014 Solar Car Challenge in Texas, the only international solar car challenge opened exclusively to high school students. The program began more than 20 years ago to motivate students in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This year, 19 out of 131 solar car teams in 28 states qualified. They included teams from New York, Florida, Texas, California, Michigan and Mississippi. Devon Prep is the only Pennsylvania team to participate.
Devon Prep’s Team included recent graduates Mike Horbowy (co-captain) of Malvern, Ben Conser (co-captain) of Audubon, Sean Kennedy of Malvern; Rising Seniors Albert Emanuel Milani of Merion, Evan Hennessy of Paoli, Soham Bharne (co-captain) of Norristown, Russell Emery of Phoenixville, Nick Ippoliti of Broomall, Alex Carandang of King of Prussia; Rising Junior Justin Hennessy of Paoli; and Rising Sophomores Riley McCarthy of Malvern and David Haruch of Media.
This is the fourth time Devon’s team competed in the Solar Car Challenge. In 2011 and 2012 the entire race took place on the Texas Motor Speedway. The Devon Panel came in fourth place in 2011 and second place in 2012. Last year the team took fourth place in the 884 mile open-road race from Dallas to Los Angeles.
This year’s Challenge was a hybrid event with two days driving laps on the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, and two days on the open road driving from Fort Worth to Austin. Between the speedway and the open road race, Devon Prep’s solar car, Sol Tide, logged 402.6 miles in the 95+ degree Texas heat.
Sol Tide, which was built in 2010, measures about 16 feet long and weighs nearly 900 pounds. It is covered with five solar panels that power four 69-pound batteries. It can travel as fast as 40 mph, but was driven an average of 23 mph throughout most of the recent race. Over the past four years, Sol Tide has undergone several mechanical upgrades and cosmetic changes. This year the team had to rewire the car and work on improving energy use among other things to prepare the car for the July race.
Eleven team members, including four drivers and four adult chaperones, traveled to Texas for the race. First they had to endure two days of qualifying tests to determine the safety and road-worthiness of the car before they were allowed to participate. They began the Speedway portion of the Challenge with high hopes until Sol Tide was rear-ended by another car on the morning of the first day. The tie rod holding the rear brake to the chassis, preventing the brake from spinning, was sheered in the accident. As a result, the brake spun freely, ripping the brake line. There was no time to make a new tie rod, which left the team frustrated and discouraged until another team’s sponsor offered assistance. They were able to get Sol Tide back on the track for the afternoon session, completing 55 laps for the day.
After two days and 143 laps, Devon Prep’s Team took Sol Tide on the open road travelling from Fort Worth to Waco on one day and Waco to Austin on the next. The race included hours of driving through small towns and on major highways, sharing the roads with trucks, buses and cars. According to Co-captain Soham Bharne of Norristown, it was exciting but sometimes scary.
“It was terrifying because we would be driving in 75 mile an hour zones and trucks would go flying by you. Some carrying wide loads.”
The weather was often dry and sunny, which is great for the car’s batteries. But they also had to deal with cloudy weather and hills, which can deplete energy. Each day the team would work out a strategy to get the most miles out of Sol Tide’s batteries, taking into account the terrain and the weather.
“The race is rated with a combination of mileage and time,” said Co-captain Mike Horbowy, who graduated from Devon Prep in June. “On the open road you have the option of putting the car in the trailer and taking it up a hill so you don’t deplete your batteries too much. But every time you do that, the miles that you drive in the trailer count against you. Since you have to accumulate as many miles as possible, you have to figure that all out.”
By the time they arrived in Austin the team was exhausted but happy. The batteries were minutes away from dying as time expired and they completed their 95th mile for the day. Their strategy had worked and they now had a trophy to show for it.
“All in all, the trip was absolutely fantastic. Every member and sponsor had a great time, and in the end we ended up in a higher place than last year,” Horbowy said.
Co-captain Ben Conser agreed. He also graduated from Devon Prep in June, so this was his last race as well.
“The experiences that we had during the competition were invaluable,” he said. “We hope that this club continues to grow and thrive in the years to come.”