Fort Worth’s Texas Motor Speedway is the starting line for more than 20 teams of high school students from across the U.S. that designed, engineered and built their own solar-powered cars. On Sunday, they will begin their eight-day journey to Palmdale, California as they test their solar-powered vehicles on a 1,400 mile trek.
The Solar Car Challenge — founded in 1993 by former Greenhill and Winston School teacher Dr. Lehman Marks — is celebrating its 30th year as one of the world’s leading hands-on STEM programs. This year’s participants are slated to participate in the program’s first cross-country event since 2018.
Sunday’s event will take off from Texas Motor Speedway, which has hosted the biannual cross-country event and alternating showcase events for years.
This year’s Solar Car Challenge will feature teams from Texas as well as Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. The program has gone global as well. The Plano-based Solar Car Challenge Foundation says high school teams are in “various stages of development” in 39 states as well as Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Spain and Singapore.
“This is the top project-based STEM program in the country,” said Dr. Marks, the non-profit foundation’s president. “We teach the kids how to build a plan, come up with a budget, fundraise, how to engineer the car and manage the project, all while they’re learning about how to harness energy from the sun to make a car go down the road.”
Marks says students who take part in the Solar Car Challenge have “a 23% greater chance of going into a STEM career” than students participating in other STEM programs.
“The cross-country race requires teams to develop really strong logistics and contingency plans,” Marks explained in a statement. “Each team will not only have their solar car driving this route but a lead car and two chase vehicles.”
During the race, car breakdowns, weather conditions, road construction and team experience will be limiting factors in how many miles teams can drive each day. The team that drives the most accumulated miles during the eight-day journey will be declared the winner.
Stopping points along the way will be in Snyder, Texas; Carlsbad, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas; Florence, Arizona; Wickenburg, Arizona and Twenty Nine Palms, California. Participating students will be able to publicly showcase their cars during the stops in El Paso, Phoenix and Florence.
More than 200,000 people are expected to see and visit the cars during their eight-day, sun-filled journey.
Preparations for this year’s race began with educational workshops last September. The foundation notes that it can take teams two to three years to see their ideas come to fruition.
Students built the cars using their own ideas and starting from scratch. Before they roll off the speedway on Sunday, each car will face a final evaluation by a panel of judges.
The Solar Car Challenge’s Education Program has served the educational community for 26 national events, with more than 65,000 students directly benefiting from the program. It’s designed to help motivate students in the fields of science, technology and alternative energy.
The organization’s 30 years of service is a key part of the global history of solar car racing. According to the foundation, Hans Tholstrup and Larry Perkins pioneered solar car racing when they completed an epic solar trek from Perth to Sydney, Australia in 1983. That led to a series of solar car races that aimed to raise public awareness. The 1987 Australian World Solar Challenge attracted 23 participants and inaugurated the first global race of its kind, followed in succeeding years by the European Tour de Sol, the American Tour de Sol and the SUNRAYCE, the American Solar Challenge and Sasol.
Today, the World Solar Challenge continues to be the world’s leading solar car event, with teams from around the globe meeting in Australia to race 1800 miles from Darwin to Adelaide.