UMsolar and the FSGP

Submitted by Bronco648 on May 13th, 2011 at 2:58 PM

When we last saw the UM Solar Car Team, they were proudly winning the 2010 American Solar Car Challenge. Here they’re shown escorting their vehicle, Infinium, across the finish line at Naperville High School in Naperville, Illinois (a far western suburb of Chicago).



The following day, they got to hoist some hardware in front of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

American Solar Challenge Winners
image courtesy of UMSolar

Who is the UM Solar Car team?

“The University of Michigan Solar Car Team (UMsolar) is an entirely student-run organization that designs and builds solar-powered vehicles. The team races both nationally and internationally. Since its establishment in 1990, the team has built 10 vehicles, won the American Solar Challenge six times, and placed third in the World Solar Challenge four times. UMsolar is widely recognized as the most successful team in North America.”

UMSolar Team 2011
The Team, The Team, The Team

It takes the team two years to build a car. Design improvements and the building of a new car starts immediately after the most recent one is complete. During summer months, the team is either; participating in the June American race (American Solar Challenge) or shipping team members and supplies to Australia in order to race internationally (World Solar Challenge). The race crew consists of about twenty-five people.

Quantum 2011
image courtesy of UMSolar

This year (2011) the crew will take the fall school semester off in order to race in the World Solar Challenge. Held during the month of October, the crew ships off to Australia in early September. They will pick up the semi-truck and solar car that has been shipped earlier. A solid month of grueling testing will follow. The team strategists need to acclimate; predicting car performance and energy usage in the Australian sun. Engineers will become familiar with the Australian road network. Eventually, the crew holds a mock race from one side of the country to the other, approximately 1800 miles. Meanwhile, interim leaders take charge, back home, to keep the team running efficiently.

The Team is comprised of four main parts; Engineering, Business, Strategy and Operations. UMsolar is so successful because of specialization within the team. Engineering builds the car. Additionally, engineering team members are further separated into segments; aerodynamics and body, mechanical, electrical, and micro-electrical. Almost every system on the vehicle is custom-designed and built for each race. Business makes the team known to the world. Also, it procures all the parts that are required. Often, the cost exceeds $1.2 million. Strategy performs weather testing and designs custom computer programs to determine the most efficient way to harness and utilize solar energy. This is done so that the performance of the vehicle, on race day, is the best it can be. Operations does all the remaining (hard) work, ensuring the team runs smoothly. This includes shipping the team (vehicles and members) to Australia and maintaining camp, in various locations, for several months.


“The University of Michigan Solar Car Team is comprised of the most talented and driven members of the University from a wide array of disciplines. By developing the best traits within each student, these individuals unite as a team in pursuit of unprecedented excellence. The team implements cutting-edge technology and creative innovations to produce and race a world-class solar car. Extending beyond racing, the team reaches out to the local, national, and international communities. Through partnership with the best companies and individuals, the team’s internal strength translates into external success, driving it to be the best solar car program in the world.”

Brief History

  • 1990 – Sunrunner: Built only a year before the inaugural 1990 SunRayce, Michigan’s first solar car won the event and went on to place third in the 1990 World Solar Challenge.
  • 1993 – Maize and Blue: After an extra year to raise money and improve design, this team appeared poised to better the record of 1990's Sunrunner. After finishing first in the 1993 SunRayce, Maize and Blue experienced severe problems with their high-powered solar array and finished seventh at the 1993 World Solar Challenge.
  • 1995 – Solar Vision
  • 1997 – Wolverine
  • 1999 – Maize Blaze: Competed in both the 1999 ASC and WSC
  • 2001 – M Pulse: Despite a testing accident, just seventeen days before the race, M-Pulse’s unique design propelled it to a first-place finish in the 2001 American Solar Challenge, Michigan’s third national championship. It also went on to place third in the 2001 World Solar Challenge
  • 2003 – SpectruM: the convention of naming the vehicle with a word that ends with the letters “um” begins.
  • 2005 – Momentum: finished first in the 2005 North American Solar Challenge, the longest solar car race ever held (Texas to Calgary, Canada).
  • 2007 – Continuum: first vehicle to feature the team’s innovative concentrator system.
  • 2009 – Infinium: placed first in the American Solar Challenge, the first team in the history of the race to win three National Championships in a row. This car also received the Technical Innovation Award for their ground-breaking concentrator system.
  • 2011 – Quantum: unveiled this month, will compete in the WSC, in Australia, in October.


During the week of May 2, 2011, UMsolar participated in the Formula Sun Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They chose not to compete because the car’s solar array is not yet installed (that is, there are no solar cells on the car). Using Infinium’s solar array to charge the battery, Quantum ticked off laps while the team gathered data and fine-tuned their processes. At one point, Quantum completed 90 laps within three hours and thirty minutes. To say the car is fast is an understatement, it’s also eerily quiet. Troy Halm was pretty smooth behind the wheel. He eventually took some pretty sharp corners without using the brakes to set the car’s suspension. I chatted a little with Jordan Feight (Strategy) who told me the drivers had received training, from Ford, and that they needed to work on being smooth and reduce the amount of forward momentum lost through side loading.

I also spoke with Chris Hilger (Business and Operations Director). He was kind enough to answer direct questions involving a brand new car. I was a little surprised; usually responses to direct questions are met with slightly vague answers. Then again, perhaps I wasn’t asking “sensitive” enough questions.

At last summer’s American Solar Challenge, I met one of the drivers from the 2005 team (Momentum), Max Ross. Max and his fellow teammates defeated the University of Minnesota in the closest American Solar Challenge (iirc). After 1500 miles of racing, Momentum finished ten minutes ahead of the Golden Gophers. Max is one of those people that radiates energy. He’s like a personification of a Red Bull. Due to the “family nature” of UMsolar, former team members support the current team while the current team considers former members a valuable resource. Max was able to get me access to Infinium as well as explain, in high detail, how various components worked. Thanks Max.

Also participating in the FSGP were: University of Kentucky, Illinois State University, Iowa State University, Missouri S&T, Northwestern University, University of Minnesota and Michigan State University.

University of Minnesota

University of Kentucky

Michigan State University

I'll have to admit, my Dad and I got a good laugh out of Sparty's effort. On the other hand, my wife felt sorry for them. They were clearly the slowest vehicle on the track and were subjected to being passed, numerous times, each lap. Each vehicle has one of those "canned air" airhorns onboard. They're used to let a slower vehicle know that they're about to be overtaken (the rear view is severely limited on most of the vehicles). You could clearly hear Sparty being overtaken, ad nauseum, whether they were in sight or not.

I was curious as to why they were so far behind, with respect to the other cars in the field. I thought better of asking directly, given the fact I was wearing my UM sweatshirt and cap (I didn't want to be subjected to a possible beatdown at the hands of a clandestine Sparty football player). I later found out that their team is very young, this is their four year of existence, and they have a lot of catching up to do.

What’s next?

As previously mentioned, the team will be installing the solar cell array within the next few weeks. I asked Chris if this was normal as I figured it was a little late to be without your solar array. He assured me that everything was on schedule and there was no reason for concern. After install, the team will continue to test and eventually head towards the east coast, terminating in New York City. They plan to meet with alumni groups along the way. Check their site for the planned route. They would love you to get to see the car and meet The Team. Best of luck to Chris, Troy, Jordan and all of UMsolar especially this Fall when they head “down under” to uphold the tradition. Go Blue.


Even the Solar Car has Wings!






See you Down Under!!

All the information in this Diary was gleaned from the UMSolar web site - thanks.

All images are provided by the Author unless otherwise noted.


Maximinus Thrax

May 15th, 2011 at 11:38 AM ^

Here is a car made by a Florida high school team.  Looks better than Sparty's entry (at least it looks more deliberate, and less like a piece of drywall nailed to the top of a go-kart).  I mean, Sparty's car looks like some frat boys whipped it up on the night before the race after pounding $4.00 pitchers of Coors Light at the Land Shark immediately prior to commencement of the project.


May 13th, 2011 at 3:30 PM ^

This looks like it would be a lot of fun to be a part of, thanks for the update! That MSU solar car looks pathetic, while the paint job and design on the UM car look awesome...makes me proud.

Optimus Hart

May 13th, 2011 at 4:05 PM ^

Here's an extra fun fact about the 1990 race:  Sunrunner was the only car to finish the race entirely under it's own power.  If I remember the history right MIT's car was faster through most of the race, but broke down in the last day or two and had to be towed to the finish.


May 13th, 2011 at 4:34 PM ^

The alumni event that Saturday had a great turnout for both university and team alums, and it was a lot of fun throwing the hammer down for some hot laps. 


May 13th, 2011 at 4:46 PM ^

I've been casually following the UM solar car for a couple years now and find myself increasingly enamored with the entire enterprise.  Wish I was still a student (basically a daily longing, sure).

UGP should totally stock up on Michigan Solar Team shirts.  I'd buy one.



May 13th, 2011 at 5:04 PM ^

Thank you for all of the kind words. That is Naperville North High School. UMsolar will have an on-going chat (a la Cover It Live) while they're competing Down Under. However, due to the time difference, most of the "race chatting" will be done by the time our work day rolls around. However, there will be daily updates and the chat will continue during US business hours (for those of us with nothing better to do). Expect to have several former team members participating.

Not to be mean but Sparty should be sponsored by John Deere. It looks and sounds like one of those riding lawn tractors. Honestly, I believe I could do better with respect to basic fabrication (granted, I have worked for some race car teams). There is so much that could be cleaned up to make that car better, from a basic assembly standpoint.

I thought Infinium was cool looking but Quantum is really awesome. Every team member is knowledgeable, friendly and easy to approach. The team spirit is clearly evident. They are true Michigan Men and Women.

Everyone Murders

May 13th, 2011 at 6:23 PM ^

Ohio State's car was not available for this year's Formula Sun Grand Prix because the football coaching staff loaned it to a 5-star wideout recruit for Junior Prom.

Great post - I hope this year's UMSolar team continues the program's remarkable run of success.

Will Vereene

May 13th, 2011 at 6:35 PM ^

I can't believe they can't put together a better product. 

The MI car is AWESOME! If it performs close to how it looks, look out!

I love the paint job and the winged cockpit cover.

Good luck in the competition!


May 13th, 2011 at 7:50 PM ^

A couple notes on car histories:

The 1990, 2001, 2005, and 2009 editions all finished 3rd at the World Solar Challenge. This is the highest any American team has finished since GM's "Sunrunner" won the inagural event in 1987.

The 2007 car (Continuum) crashed 5 minutes into the World Solar challenge, rear-ending the lead car when a team in front stopped abruptly just after a green light (the races, except FSGP, take place on open road). Despite major structural and electrical damage, the team repaired the car overnight and completed the 5-day race, finishing 7th out of >30 teams. (full disclosure: I was on that team and was sitting about 30 feet behind the solar car in Chase when it crashed. Bad day.) Continuum car also won the North American Solar Challenge the next year.

The Sunrayce/(North) American Solar challenge has been held a total of 10 times. Michigan has won 6 of these ('90, '93, '01, '05, '08, '10) - meaning they're winning national titles at a 60% success rate.


May 13th, 2011 at 8:48 PM ^

Mostly they get sent to museums. I know '90 is at the Henry Ford (look on top of the IMAX ticket booth) and '93 is at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. '95 is at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, '97 is on the wall at the Wilson Center, and '99 is at the Boston Museum of Science (UofM got a car in a Boston museum before MIT).


May 13th, 2011 at 8:23 PM ^

That was the year I graduated from U-M in Engineering, and many of the people who designed, built and raced Sunrunner were good friends of mine. The driver of the car as it crossed the finish line in the GM Sunrayce, Paula Finnegan, was a classmate and friend.

You have no idea (or maybe you do) how gratifying it is - and what a source of pride! - to see UM Solar continue to thrive so many years later. The team is arguably more successful than ever, and it stands on the shoulders of the past teams whose innovations have yielded real breakthroughs in the collection, management and use of solar power and race management.

Well done, and congratulations!


May 14th, 2011 at 11:51 PM ^

It was a huge time sink away from classes and studying,  but it was a fun thing to get into.  I spent a spring break making wind tunnel models for the solar car team, still remember the lack of sleep and long days in the FXB... this was way back in the '90's...

Nice to see the current students kicking butt and having a bit of fun too.

And Sparty... well... better luck next time.



May 16th, 2011 at 11:56 AM ^

My Dad and I were doing the same thing (LMAO). And, we were close enough to the track that the driver could clearly see us. I have to think that this is a common response to their car. In a previous reply, I mentioned that the fit and finish of their car is rather poor. OK, so you're new to this solar car thing and you're not very good. How about you at least concentrate on doing some of the basic things well and grow into the harder stuff? I guess that approach is beyond them too.


May 19th, 2011 at 1:26 PM ^

Looks like the team has a proud history and a bright future... I am proud of anything accomplished by our students and grads that represents UofM is such a fine manner.