COAL: 1999 UM Maize Blaze • Everybody Makes Mistakes

We revealed the car in a big, fancy ceremony there in Michigan. Music, speeches, etc. My folks flew in, and Bill Weertman and his wife drove down the highway to see it.

Bill—Chrysler’s longtime Chief Engine Engineer—and I had been friends ever since I’d cold-called him from Denver after finding his name on the Slant-6 engine patent some years before, and we had a growing collection of this kind of photo:

At the unveiling, we expanded the collection again:

The start of the race was a big, festive event on a plaza in Washington DC. All the teams gathered, and many parents. More speeches and festivities. My folks were there, too, and my aunt and uncle who lived nearby in Maryland. All that was fun.

Markedly less fun was when the stop lights on our car flunked inspection. Aero/Body had recessed them forward of the trailing edge, and covered them and their recesses with clear plastic. The scrutineers said they couldn’t be seen out to the required 45 degrees, so we scrambled to cobble up some kind of bodge to increase their visibility angles without spoiling the aerodynamics of the body. By and by, off we went on a nine-day race to Florida.

The official account of the 1999 UM car is a paragraph long, and it says the team built their own solar panel array completely in-house, which led to power issues during the race. That’s one way of saying it; here’s another: y’member the amazement my use of RTV silicone generated? The thing about goop in a tube that turns into rubber is that there are about as many kinds of it as there are named shrimp dishes in “Forrest Gump”. There’s goop optimised for setting windshields, goop for sealing oil, for sealing transmission fluid, for sealing grease, coolant, water, gasoline, for caulking bathtubs, for sealing windows, for insulating wires, for fixing shoes—you name it. They are interchangeable to a limited degree, and that limitation is disregarded at peril of wrecking the job.

So it might have been best if whoever was tasked with selecting an adhesive to mount the solar cells to the car body had put more into it than just heading over to Home Depot and picking up a case of whatever random caulk came to hand. I’m sure if the caulk they bought had been used as intended, it’d’ve done fine.

But we hadn’t built a solar bathtub, or at least we hadn’t meant to. Bathtubs generally don’t know or care if their caulk is conductive when wet once cured, but solar cell arrays are rather pickier on that point. And you want to believe that caulk got wet and stayed that way; there was rain on most of the race’s nine days. Our car took on numerous gallons of water (like, from the outside to the inside of this solar cell-bodied car). Zzt! Shorted-out solar cells have a tendency not to deliver much power.

So during one particularly drenching day, we were crawling along the sparsely-populated interstate: lead van (“Lead”), solar car, chase van (“Chase”), all doing maybe 15 mph as the waterlogged car struggled under the dim skies. The project Manager drove Chase, a V10 Ford E-Series running two beacon bars each with multiple strobe tubes inside, the defoggers and wipers on high, the headlamps on, two high-ampacity inverters, three computers with CRT screens, radiotelemetry gear, and a cube fridge. This he did in Drive, not First, for long enough that Chase’s battery went completely flat. In rural Georgia—Toccoa, to be exact—on a Friday afternoon.

Race rules specified that each team had to have that caravan—lead, car, chase—at all times, so we had to pull over. Lead van, chase van, and a wet-nosed, inert solar car. Those of us who weren’t actively fussing with the car served as flaggers (including me) wearing fluorescent retroreflective safety vests and waving big fluorescent orange caution flags to alert highway traffic.

Along came a nincompoop in a then-current Ford Explorer. We could tell he was a nincompoop because he stopped (in the left lane of the interstate, mind you), rolled down his passenger window, and went “Yew cain’ jes’ stawp awf’n the road lack thet, wayvin’ thim ornge flaygs…they aspozeda be riyed flaygs, nawt ornge wuns!” (for those not fluent in Southern: “You can’t just stop off the road like that, waving those orange flags; they’re supposed to be red flags, not orange ones!”).

The speed limit on that stretch was at least 65, and traffic was approaching about half a mile behind the Explorer, i.e., about 25 seconds away. All of us were frantically hollering at him to get moving, get going or get off the road, and he was just sitting there, transmission in Park, going “ah neh-oh, butchyew cain’ jes’ stop off’n th’ road lack thet, wayvin’ thim ornge flaygs! You s’pozeda have riyed flaygs!”. By some miracle nobody was killed or hurt and no property damage occurred when the traffic caught up with him, but there was plenty of honking and some tire squealing.

We then proceeded to get even more soaked, by a local grudge run by a good ol’ boy who even kept a few metric screwdrivers up yonder awn th’ wall in case if one o’ them furrin cars might could need work. Charged us $300+ for an alternator rebuild which may or may not have happened or been needed—you’re the judge. While he was busy “rebuilding the alternator” (i.e., charging up the battery), we went walking to see what was to see in Toccoa.

First thing we wanted to see was a telephone; celphones were a thing in 1999, but not yet in Toccoa. We had on our UM Solar Car Team raingear, all blue and –yellow– maize, and we ducked into the bank to see if we could use their phone. One of the tellers went “Eeeeee! Mah meemaw seen y’all on teevee! Y’all cum gitta loda theeyis; these gazzur thim sowluh cah keeyids!” (“Golly! My grandmother saw your team on television. Hey, coworkers, gather around; this is that solar car team”). Yes, we could use their phone.

I don’t remember the details of our exodus from Toccoa. It took awhile, and early on we resigned ourselves to watching hours tick by without solar-car mobility. It seemed like the kind of place one generally doesn’t escape.

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