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ISU Solar Car Team members check on the driver during the Formula Sun Grand Prix last week at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

NORMAL — There was no podium finish for the Illinois State University Solar Car Team this year, but by other measures, the team was a success at the American Solar Challenge Formula Sun Grand Prix in Texas.

Although promoting solar power is an element of the event, “the main thing is for the kids to learn,” said Jim Dunham, an ISU model maker who is an adviser to the team and traveled with them to the Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“For bragging rights for ISU, we didn't do well. We finished seventh. But as a learning experience, we succeeded brilliantly,” he said.

The team encountered several problems, including brake issues that prevented them from getting on the track until Day Two of the three-day race.

Junior Alex Plumadore of Bloomington, a physics major and University High School graduate, said, “We were able to find a solution” that, in the end, had ISU among the top two teams in brake performance.

That was only the start of their problems, there were also “a few mechanical and electrical issues” the second day, said Dunham. “We were chasing gremlins all day long on that day.”

But the team persevered.

“The cool thing about this race … is the creative ways they come up with to fix the problems,” said Dunham.

After completing only 19 laps on Day Two, the team completed 51 laps on Saturday, the final day of the race, the fourth highest total of all 10 cars that ran that day in the single-occupant vehicle class.

That was despite a problem with the steering wheel, which includes a 7-inch touch screen with a small computer. It overheated and “the car started doing all kinds of weird things,” Dunham recalled.

The air temperature was in the upper 90s and it was probably close to 120 on the track itself, said Dunham.

So what did the team do?

“We shoved it into a cooler full of ice, making sure it didn't get wet,” said Plumadore.

Then the team drilled some extra holes into the steering wheel for ventilation and bolted on a small cooling fan, said Dunham.

The team finished the day with the fifth fastest lap in the race.

The winning team was Poly Montreal, with 230 laps; followed by Principia College and the University of Kentucky, with 195 and 153 laps, respectively. The University of Illinois finished fourth with 111 laps.

Plumadore said, “We hope our car works wonderfully all the time, but the reality on the track is a little different.”

That “reality” can be frustrating, but Dunham notes the students learn more when things don't go smoothly. Last year, the team failed to qualify for the race, but learned by helping other teams.

“In a classroom, they never get experience like this,” said Dunham.

Plumadore agrees.

“You're learning things you never learn anywhere else: teamwork, planning, how to problem solve,” said Plumadore.

“The solar car is very much a team effort. Without a team, you wouldn't have a car,” he said. “It takes a team to build it and keep it running.”

This year's team was pretty lean, with only eight members. But they hope to build on their experience and, Plumadore said, “We hope to do a big recruiting push fall semester.”

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Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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