COAL: 1999 UM Maize Blaze • Everybody Makes Mistakes

The trouble was, we had much too much money.

Not long after arriving to continue my studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I spotted a sign advertising a solar car team interest meeting. My first thought was how fun it would be to drive a solar car, and the only things stopping me being right was that I was completely wrong (and much too big, tall, and heavy to find out in person).

But I didn’t know any of that yet, so I went to the meeting. It was Autumn 1997, and the team were looking to recruit new members. Anyone was welcome, though they had particular interests and specialities they were looking for. Anyone here know anything about Photovoltaic cells? Electric motors? Lighting? Brakes? Batteries? Vehicle regulations? Composites?

Hey, lighting and vehicle regs, that’s meee! And just like that, there I was. Somehow or other I also wound up in charge of batteries, I don’t remember why, but I wasn’t all that cowed by the idea. I did know a thing or two about batteries. Maybe not more than that, but everyone has to start somewhere. And for the matter of that, I’ve started in the middle here, so let me go back and fill in the blanks. The team had a small office on the ground floor of one of the engineering buildings, a giant workspace in the other half of the building that also housed the UM Property Disposition department (where no-longer-wanted office furniture, computer gear, lab equipment, and other suchlike went to be sold off) and a large shop space in Pittsfield Township, a few miles off campus. The aim was to engineer, design, and build a solar-powered car, run it in Sunrayce—a biennial race for cars and teams like this, sponsored by General Motors, EDS, and the US Department of Energy—and then, with a good showing in Sunrayce, go run it in the World Solar Challenge in Australia.

It all sounded like great fun to me, but as I say, we had too much money, so the car turned out poorly. Many of its problems were caused directly or indirectly by prioritising ostentatious displays of wealth and cocksure overconfidence over getting the job done. The thing is, we were the University of Michigan, where the auto industry rains money to grow their engineers.

We had companies lining up to sponsor us either with cash or with parts, supplies, tools, equipment, expertise, facilities—whatever we needed or wanted, we just had to ask. And that, I think, was our undoing: we were well overfed, so we were never really hungry. At Sunrayce ’99, in a 29-team field we were beaten by 16 teams with far smaller budgets and much less access to the North American auto industry.

Right from the start I was something of an anomaly; the team was full of engineering students, while I was in LS&A. I wasn’t the only unusual team member; there was one dude, a nontraditional student quite a bit older than the rest of us, who could (and frequently did) demolish a case of beer, get so drunk he couldn’t steadily stand, plunk himself down at a vertical mill or some other tool, and sit there turning out part after flawless part—somehow without mangling himself in the machine.

Even though I was a lowly Literature-Science-Arts student, my hands-on experience with cars was closer to the high end of the range on the team, and that carried some cred and weight. We built not one but three vehicles: the test chassis, the car, and the trailer. Five if we count outfitting the lead and chase vans. So there was plenty of opportunity for the likes of me, even though my academic program was centred more around words than figures. Still, it was a little weird to be in the position of guest-lecturing a room full of engineering students about batteries one day. My teammates were 90 per cent cool about it or so; they waited until afterward to inform the classroom that I wasn’t an engineering student myself.

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