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Racing to Their Moment in the Sun


When students at Los Altos High discuss "the Australian campaign," they're not talking history. They're talking cars.

To be specific, solar-powered cars. And, in particular, the Solar Shadow, their entry in the 1,900-mile World Solar Challenge, an October race across Australia's sunbaked midsection, from Darwin south to Adelaide.

Over the last year, about 40 students at the Hacienda Heights school have been building this car part by part--working weekends, after school, through the summer.

Now it's crunch time, with the team about $15,000 short of the $100,000 it needs. At a recent strategy meeting, team members made what faculty advisor Robert Franz calls an "all or nothing" decision, rejecting a proposal to trim costs by sending only six of the 11 students chosen by their peers to go to Australia.

So, on Thursday the Solar Shadow started its journey by cargo ship from San Pedro to Melbourne. On Oct. 11, the team hopes to be on a plane bound for Australia.

Their interest in building a solar car--essentially a self-charging electric car--was piqued a few years ago when they saw a video, "Running on Sunlight." Their enthusiasm, Franz says, "just kind of pulled me along."

In truth, he says, "the solar car is way out of the realm of a high school project." But among the things Los Altos had going for it was a relationship with nearby Cal Poly Pomona, a veteran of the triennial Australian race, which donated the chassis and considerable expertise after deciding not to enter the race this year.

Franz's manufacturing technology class, which gave birth to the project, is state funded by the La Puente Valley Regional Occupational Program.

Students have scrounged donations of cash and equipment from local businesses. Major donors have ranged from Wal-Mart to Haddick's Auto Body in the city of Industry, which raised $10,000 with a roll-out party for the car.

A chili cook-off at Glendale Brake and Auto Parts netted $200. Then there was the adopt-a-cell campaign. "We sent out like a little birth certificate" to everyone who gave $10 for a solar cell, says student Jerry Heaps, 18. "We raised $10,000 in three months."

The car itself cost $40,000 and is being shipped without charge by Australia-New Zealand Line. But things aren't cheap down under. The motor home that will be command central costs $7,500 for the three weeks. Air fare is an $18,000 item. And, Franz says, "gasoline in the outback is $4 a gallon."

The race has attracted some 50 entries, including a $20-million two-seater from Honda.

"Our goal," Heaps says, "is to be the first high school across that finish line" and pick up one of the framed boomerang trophies. Their competition will include a Dallas school, as well as ones from Australia, Switzerland and Japan.

The race basics: Each team will have nine days from the Oct. 27 start to reach Adelaide in time for Nov. 5 closing ceremonies. The course is Stuart Highway, which race director Hans Tholstrup describes as "a small American country road" through desolate red desert dotted by four small towns and some "teeny-weeny little settlements."

The Solar Shadow, about 700 pounds, sleek and blue, has a hatch through which the driver wiggles into a bubble-top compartment. In choosing three drivers to spell one another on three-hour shifts, size and weight were factors. That helped Erika Woo, 18 (5 feet, 6 inches, 120 pounds), who'll be a freshman in electrical engineering at Cal Poly, get one nod.

With average temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, the race will be no joy ride. On the road, the team will camp out.


Tina Shelton has been in three World Solar Challenges as advisor to the Cal Poly Pomona team, which in 1993 set a two-seater world record. She and husband Mike, a Cal Poly mechanical engineering professor, are going to Australia as advisors.

Explaining the nuts and bolts of the Solar Shadow, Tina Shelton makes it sounds pretty simple: The sun hitting 700 solar cells generates electricity, which drives the motor, which drives the wheels. But, she cautions, the race "is a big strategy game": Teams must make speed judgments to conserve enough solar energy to survive should late afternoon clouds cut recharging time.

When Franz, Los Altos class of '66, talks about the Australian campaign, it's in terms of teamwork, of a disparate group of kids working together. Working side by side are multiethnic kids on the academic fast track and those on a vocational track.

There's Tim Hardley, 18, metal fabrication team leader and one of the drivers. He'll begin studies for the ministry this fall. His credentials on joining the solar car team: "Three years of auto shop."

There's project coordinator Mike Merchant, 18, who'll study mechanical engineering at Cal Poly Pomona. He was as excited about "getting to weld and solder" as about being able "to call people on a personal basis at JPL and TRW" and ask for advice.

That students built the 16-foot car with knowledge gleaned from math and science classes delights Franz, who calls this "a rolling science project. Every part, we built three or four times."

The toughest part has been the fund-raising. But the Solar Shadow team is optimistic after launching an "adopt-a-kilometer" campaign at $25 a pop. Sept. 25 will be the moment of truth: Either the team has the money and it's a go or the car just gets shipped home.

Franz is confident his team can do it.

As for the big picture, the World Solar Challenge is about exploring alternative, less polluting energy sources to today's gas guzzlers.

And the next project for Franz's manufacturing technology class?

Well, he muses, "Maybe a human-powered airplane. . . ."

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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