Southern Oregon's newest Formula One race car driver is 18 years old.
Bonnie Wood, a 2013 graduate of Ashland High School, is en route to Texas with her Solar Vehicle Team classmates at Oregon State University. Their goal? To win the Formula Sun Grand Prix — again.
Their car, called the Phoenix, is solar-powered.
Bonnie Wood blogs every day in the lead-up to the Formula Sun Grand Prix and the American Solar Challenge. Follow her at http://bonathan.wordpress.com.
For more on the OSU Solar Vehicle Team, visit http://groups.oregonstate.edu/solar/
For more information about the races, see http://americansolarchallenge.org.
"It's very fun to drive," says Wood. "I haven't gone very far above 30 (mph) yet, but it feels like you're going very fast because it's low to the ground."
The maximum speed of the car is 60 to 65 mph.
The car, built by OSU engineering students, is shaped like a pea pod with a bubble in the center and is covered with solar panels. Sitting in the three-wheeled sun car gives Wood the feeling she's a Jedi knight flying a mission in her pod.
"There is no escaping the feeling that you are in the future," she writes in her blog.
To keep the car light and fast, the interior is Spartan. There is barely enough room for the driver, who sits in a protective cage. The brakes are made largely from bicycle parts. The motor, which runs on the same wattage as a hair dryer, rests over the rear wheel. The exterior is highly aerodynamic: instead of rearview or sideview mirrors, a cam points out the back, and the image is captured on a tablet computer mounted above the steering wheel.
The Formula Sun Grand Prix is a three-day race that begins Thursday in Austin, Texas. The race website lists 23 university teams from around the world entered in this year's competition.
Using an actual Formula One track, the cars navigate S-turns, hairpin turns and hills. The course begins with a hill that is especially tough for solar cars. In the engine design, student engineers must balance power — to get the car over the hills — with efficiency to make the car travel as far as possible.
"It's hard to get the torque to go up hills and (yet maximize) the efficiency, so that first hill takes a lot of people out — in the very first lap," explains Wood, who helped work on streamlining the car for this year's race. "It's easier once you've gone around the lap once; then you have a running start."
Stalling in the first lap spells disaster beyond the race itself. For many teams, says Wood, "if they don't get at least one lap in, they don't get funding from their school for the next year."
Last year, the OSU team won the race, and it also got the sportsmanship award for helping other schools make it through that first crucial lap.
This year, the team will defend its title, and speed is not as important as distance. The goal is to outlast the competition. OSU's car completed 193 laps in the 2013 race. The winner must complete at least one lap after the last competitor's car stops and runs out of fuel — or electrons, in this case.
Wood is one of four drivers for the race. She says that standing only 5-foot-8 helped her during the selection process. Like the Apollo astronauts, the drivers of this car have a height limit, and many of her solar car club classmates are taller than she is.
The FSGP track race is a qualifier for the more prestigious American Solar Challenge (ASC). Teams in the FSGP race must complete a pre-determined number of laps with multiple drivers. Teams that make it safely this far have proved their solar cars are ready to attempt a cross-country journey.
The ASC race concept is similar to the Tour de France: multiple stages over multiple days, with the winning vehicle-team having the fastest combined time. This year's cross-country race will include five stages spread over eight consecutive days, beginning on Monday, July 21. The route begins in Austin and ends in Minneapolis. In between, the cars will drive through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.
In addition to being a test of engineering chutzpah, the 1,600-mile race is a test of endurance, and one that has already begun.
"This morning, we got to the lab at 6 a.m.," says Wood. "And now at 9 p.m., we're still here. There are about 10 of us working on the car constantly."
Every little noise must be investigated. Multiple rewirings are required. Brakes are rebuilt at the hint of a rattle.
It's a lot of work for a volunteer effort. Wood and her classmates receive no pay, no class credit.
"What I'm getting is experience; it's what I'm in college for," says Wood. "I'm figuring out if mechanical engineering is what I want to do. I'm interested in engineering, but so far I enjoy everything I'm doing."
Wood's interest in engineering began in high school. "It was a long process, not an epiphany," she explains.
That interest was piqued by an internship in wave power.
"I decided that I wanted to build something new, to innovate," she says. "I wanted something to challenge me. It's what I need to be happy."
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at email@example.com.