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Solar go-karts invade Bristol Motor Speedway

W. Kenneth Medley II • May 2, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Local high school students will take to the track May 7 at Bristol Motor Speedway in a challenge to complete as many laps as possible in a two-hour time period driving solar-powered go-karts.

High school students and future engineers have been competing since 2016 at BMS in the Solar Go-Kart Challenge. The go-karts use the same frame and basic components, according to Jonathan Casteel, engineering and robotics instructor at Sullivan Central High School and event organizer. The students choose solar panels, batteries and the design. Casteel said that this makes the design that much more important.

“The significance of the program is to teach students about alternative energy sources,” Casteel said in a phone interview, “and we have taken a gasoline vehicle and converted it totally to electric power that is charged through solar technology. The main purpose is to teach students how to utilize natural resources. We have turned it into a fun event, into a race. (The students) have to manage, ‘do I go faster and drain the batteries down, or do I go slower at the risk of not getting enough laps in,’ and they have to learn to balance the potential charge they have, versus how quickly (the batteries) are being charged, in conjunction with how quickly they are being drained. There is a lot of science in that.”

The teams have been working all year to improve their karts from the past year’s events, according to a press release. Iteration is the conceptual plan this year, or “to work through the design process over and over again aiming to obtain the best results possible.” Casteel is leading the effort this year in organizing the event, and his team has competed since the first year of this  alternative energy project.

The race started with an energy grant from the state. The challenge has given students the ability to continue improvements to the karts. This year hundreds of students from 12 highs schools will compete at the “world’s fastest half-mile” and the “last great coliseum” to battle for the title and hopefully making this year the best yet.

Casteel says the highlights will be the design of the vehicles, strategy and the drivers. Weight distribution and choosing the proper driver are tremendous factors in the race that is organized like a spec-race. Spec-racing is short for specification racing, meaning the karts must meet similar specifications for weight, wheelbase, fuel, tires, etc. etc. The teams get to choose design, batteries, panels and driver; making these elements the deciding factors for overall performance of the vehicle.

“The first year’s team that won was an all-girls team,” Casteel said, “because their drivers were very lightweight. Last year they came in second place because the first place team just had a really good design. They managed their energy levels well by driving a minimum speed and then they picked up the speed toward the end of the race. That is how they were able to go the one extra lap that it took to win the event, which was pretty neat.”

This event is free to the public, and organizers are urging everyone to come out and support these young engineers, who are the future engineers of the world. The two-hour endurance race will begin at 11 a.m.; gates will open at 9 a.m. Anyone interested in attending will need to enter at the turn three gate, entrance nine. Trophies will be awarded to the first-, second- and third-place teams; other awards will be given as well.

The program gives students the opportunity to apply multiple areas of engineering in a real-world working environment, while having fun and learning racetrack safety. Karts in the past have gone as fast as 40 mph. This is why racers are required to wear helmets and five-point restraint harnesses.

“The point of it is endurance so that is what we are focusing on this year,” said Casteel. “Last year we had a speed race and endurance race. There was a little back and forth of, ‘the speed race is cool, but it just drained everyone’s batteries down and that is why we didn’t do so well in the endurance race.’ This year we are bypassing the speed trial and just going straight endurance to see how many laps we can get. I think last year the top was around 65 laps. This year we should see something like that, maybe 70 laps.”

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