“Race Day 5/6”
By Matt Nixon
21 October 2011 – Adelaide, Australia
Word’s out: America’s #1 solar car team is from the University of Michigan.
They took third in the 2011 World Solar Challenge. As in the 2009 event the team from Japan’s Tokai University took first and from the Netherland’s, Nuon took second. Déjà vu all over again?
Yes and no. The WSC is an event of the sort where each running is unique and anything can happen. I could go on about the details; brushfires, high winds, torn fairings – but those have all been born out by now. Let’s drill down into the emotions involved.
Nervous parents, excited cheerleaders, hand wringing U-M Solar alums and anticipatory media paced in the drizzle, jockeying for a position and the perfect view. All of us waiting to catch sight of the flashing lights atop the lead support vehicle.
Clutching hope like grim death, we were beyond eager to see our heroes finish what they’d started years ago. Yesterday, running on ozone and the team’s sheer force of will, Michigan’s Quantum rolled across the finish line in the nick of time.
I won’t spin it; there was something decidedly anticlimactic about the finish. None of us could put our finger on the feelings we were experiencing in the moment. It wasn’t disappointment. Certainly there was some of that because everyone wants to win. But what they’d accomplished was nothing to be dismissed as a loss.
Relief? There was loads of that. Our team was safe. No one was injured to any significant extent. Banged up to be sure – but nothing that time and rest can’t heal.
Pride? Yes, we were all proud of our team. They performed like champions leaving everything on this most unusual field of battle. Still, there was just nothing of gravity to be said. We mustered an awkward and hoarse Hail to the Victors.
Yet something in that moment felt like the severing of the strings that had been keeping us all connected during the 1,800-mile odyssey from Darwin to Adelaide. It was like helium slowly escaping a balloon. The adventure was over and we were all descending back down to earth.
When I got to my hotel room I couldn’t bring myself to write a single line. I just didn’t have the words. The closest I could come to a descriptor was confusion. What had I witnessed? It was something profound, every fiber of my body resonated with vibrations but what was it?
I thought about it as I washed the red Outback earth from my aching body. Walking the streets Adelaide late that night, alone I pondered. Where was my heart? Where was my head?
And then it struck me like boxer’s blow to solar plexus: I missed them.
I’m in a beautiful city, staying in a nice hotel and I have every comfort (that I went without while Outback) within easy reach. But I would trade it all to be back in the dirt with the team for just another day or two. No hyperbole, I would have died a completed man out there.
This was my tribe and now we lay scattered about by the four winds.
If ever again I’m gifted with a similar experience it won’t be anything like what I’d just gone through with them. And it wasn’t until the final night, prior to the last day of our race, that some of the quieter members of the team finally engaged me in discussion.
Santosh Kumar (the head strategist) asked me a question. Whoa. This man’s mind is made from the clockwork of the god’s and he had a question for me?
“Matt, what have you found to be the best thing about Australia?” he asked.
Without hesitation I replied, “Watching you guys work together.” No matter how awed I may be, I am not one to pay lip service to anyone. My statement was pure truth.
I’ve been humbled to witness the way this team operates. I’ve learned something about teamwork, collaboration and the ability to harness the passion that, when people are put under extreme pressure, often bubbles over into negative emotions.
Sitting back I remarked that under every situation they’d found themselves facing, they always seemed to be so calm. Calm. Even when moving at speeds that warped my perception. They problem-solved with an even-keeled coolness that just can’t be captured in words or pictures. It had to be felt. To have experienced it, I am thankful beyond expression.
Santosh chuckled, “Well, we just deal with the problems and keep moving forward. What you’re not seeing are some of the fireworks that go off when we pile back into the support vehicles.”
Well, that’s really it, isn’t it? Fix what needs to be fixed. So that Quantum can get back on course solve what needs to be solved – and then you can let out the steam. It’s simplicity itself but somewhere along the line we can forget that’s how winning is done. You must remember; a lot of these men and one very special woman aren’t even old enough to legally enjoy a beer.
With all of our egos, insecurities and human frailties it’s easy to lose sight of this when you see full-on grown-ups who can’t behave like civil human beings. Still, this team of youngsters could be trusted get you through hell and back. And in a sense (if you know the Outback) they did that very thing.
This morning when I arrived at Victoria Square and found the three winning teams joyfully splashing about in the fountain (appropriately named the “Three Rivers Fountain” taking its namesake from the three rivers, the Torrens, the Onkaparinga and the Murray – all of which feed Adelaide most of its fresh water) I found my writer’s inspiration renewed. Competitors, now comrades, swapped jerseys and reveled in the joie de vivre that the World Solar Challenge and the fountain so adequately represent.
When they emerged from the waters, I asked some of the individual team members how they were feeling. Not surprisingly it was Team Manager Rachel Kramer who put a fine point on what I was seeing.
“All of the bad feelings just melted away the minute we jumped into the fountain,” said Rachel.
My heart swelled like a torrent about to burst a dam. It was in that moment that I finally got it. It was through their smiles that I understood my own emotions. I was witnessing the stuff of legend.
Celebrations at the official finish line at Victoria Square in Adelaide where #3 University of Michigan’s Quantum solar car arrived on Friday, October 21, 2011 during the World Solar Challenge race across Australia. All photos courtesy of Marcin Szczepanski, Multimedia Content Producer/College of Engineering, U-M
U-M’s Blaine Riley, head of sourcing, celebrates at the official finish line where #3 University of Michigan’s Quantum solar cars arrived on Friday, October 21, 2011.
Always smiling and a volcano of energy, U-M’s solar car biggest supporter and cheerleader Charles S. Hutchins sports a University of Michigan beret at the official finish line at Victoria Square. [Ed. - A lot of the support directed toward the team is courtesy of Mr. Hutchins. He is certainly one of the reasons the team is a HUGE success. "Volcano of energy" is an apt description. Thank you Sir!]
Shoes left after jumping into the fountain at Victoria Square where U-M, Nuon and Tokai University solar car team members celebrated at the official finish line
U-M, Nuon and Tokai University solar car teams celebrate together after exchanging jerseys at the official finish line at Victoria Square’s fountain in Adelaide.
Link to the celebration video. Watch the team sing 'The Victors' in the Three Rivers Fountain! Click here
Thanks for following along. As before, I'll be reading thru the comments and will do my best to answer questions or find answers for you. The American Solar Challenge will be held next Summer. I'll be happy to "cover" that event as well. Go Blue!