Their hard work and perseverance would pay off. After a three day journey the New Paltz solar car team would find themselves passing through Dallas, Fort Worth and finally ending at the Texas Motorsports ranch in Cresson where the Formula Sun Grand Prix would be held.
The weary travelers stretched out as they soaked in the warm Texas twilight. Eleven teams had gathered there, their trailers lined up and open: some unloaded, some with their cars and tools still loaded.
The air smelled of ambition and anticipation as students from the eleven different schools bustled around setting up their camps in preparation for the 2 days of scruitineering that would soon follow.
At 5:30 AM Monday morning the SUNY New Paltz students awoke and wandered down to their hotel lobby eager for and weary of what lay ahead. Twelve hours of hard labor, soldering, gluing, taping, zip-tying, wiring and sawing greeted them that day. As their bodies slowly acclimated to the high Texas sun and heat, they went through two scruitineering stations where the judges poked and prodded their creation pointing out all the errors they needed to address.
They took these advisations to heart and returned to their trailer to make the necessary corrections. Tensions that had been waxing for two weeks began to flare hotter as the team struggled to carve out roles and responsibilities.
At the end of their first day a rainstorm came through halting the work of almost all the teams. New Paltz decided to pack it in lest their hard work be felled by rain damage. Exhausted, they returned to their hotel room to sleep until the next 5:30 AM wakeup and the fourteen hour day that would follow.
Tuesday morning would greet the team with a rainstorm. Frantically they returned their car to rolling condition just as it hit. With the car still not under cover one member ripped the shirt off of his back in an effort to protect some of the delicate electrical systems.
Under the protection of the scruitineering canopy one member looked up from the car and exclaimed "OK! We're ready for electrical [scruitineering]".
Again they were given a run down of the necessary changes. And, again, they returned to their station to resume their work. Fortunately, the rain subsided quickly and over the next several hours the car coalesced into a fully functional solar vehicle.
Nervously, the team returned to the scruitineering stations to, triumphantly, receive passing inspections in all areas just as the judges were closing their positions.
It was then time for the final test: dynamics. This was a test of handling and performance with three separate parts. Accelerating to a relatively high speed, the driver had to apply the breaks and stop the car within three seconds. The car passed with flying colors coming to a complete stop in 1.3 seconds. Next was a figure eight and finally a slalom. After passing both of these, the New Paltz team was in the race.
Excited, they returned to their hotel teaming with alacrity for the three days of racing before them. Wednesday morning brought the start of the first day or racing. All of the teams began by trucking their equipment up to their bases of operation in the cold pit area, then by setting up their cars to catch the morning sun and charge their batteries, tasks which would become an everyday affair.
Tensions seemed to be settling down into palpable excitement as the teams watched their cars compete on the 1.7 mile long track. One member from every team reported to a timing table to keep track of lap time, number and other information about the car. The rest of the team members were left to fill other roles such as organizing the pit and keeping radio contact with the car.
New Paltz was in and running strong until a critical error was discovered: the car's solar cells were not charging its batteries. The driver pitted in and the team assembled around the car. Under the cover of clouds it would be only an hour and a half until the car was back up and running. The car reentered the track and a roaring cheer rose up from the teams in the pits to celebrate the return of New Paltz to the track.
Since the start of the race, a certain camaraderie existed between all of the teams. Everyone was allied behind the notion that they were all there for the benefit and betterment of science and engineering. If help was needed, assistance was offered two-fold. From nuts and bolts to wisdom, experience and advice, nothing was too large. The team from Kentucky, which placed second, even borrowed a motor controller (a very critical component) from Northwestern University, which placed third.
By day four Calsol, the team from Berkeley in California, finally got their car operating and into the dynamics test. And, again, the pits went wild with applause and cheering, enthralled to see that the team finally up and running.
It would also be a great day for SUNY New Paltz. After completing 67 laps on the first day, the team decided to push it a little farther and ended the second day with 102 laps. That day only saw two pit stops for SUNY New Paltz. The first to replace their auxiliary battery, the second to change a worn front tire.
The excitement culminated on Friday. Without the need to charge their batteries for another day of racing almost all of the teams decided to let the drivers open up their cars for speed rather than longevity.
By the end of the race some teams were off the track having run their batteries into depletion. Only New Paltz and a hand full of other cars were still in the race. At the end of their second to last lap it became clear that their batteries were running low. Two SUNY team members were at the timing table and they watched as the car came up the hill. They stood up to cheering the car on for another lap. It went around again and came up the last hill through the chicane before the lap line. It was even more clear that their batteries were running out but the two team members stood up cheering the car on for a final lap. This time, however, the two team members noticed that it was more than just them cheering, the other teams had joined in.
The Sun Hawk rolled through the final lap, its driver stretching the last of the battery's power. It came up the final hill and into the pit lane to come in for the end of the race. The car crept slowly through the lane and everyone in the pits, having noticed its struggle in the last lap, stood watching with bated breath, wondering if the underdog, first time New York team, would make it past the lap marker or fall inches short of a modest victory.
A thunder of applause, whooping and hollering erupted from the pit area as the Sun Hawk rolled past the lapline and down the slight hill into the pits to finish the day with 127 laps.
The night ended with all of the teams running around trading congratulations and team shirts like baseball cards. Everyone began packing up their cars and tools to enjoy their last night in Texas before the 8:00 AM Saturday deadline to leave the ranch.
The SUNY New Paltz Solar Car Team left the ranch at 9:00 PM Friday night and returned to their hotel rooms to enjoy some well earned rest and relaxation. The following morning they packed up the last of their things and enjoyed a hasteless celebratory breakfast before hitting the road.
Those three days home would not mark the end of their journey, but rather the beginning. Those days together in the car were filled with jovial relaxation and brimming team spirit; but most importantly the sharing of hopes, dreams and plans for a bright and sunny future of solar racing.