The bright North Texas sun is a blessing and a curse.
For racers participating in the last day of the Solar Car Challenge at the Texas Motor Speedway on Thursday, it was a little of both. The sun was a curse as they zipped around a track radiating temperatures up to 150 degrees, and a blessing as it powered their cars around Texas’ largest stadium at speeds you see on major city streets.
“When I was my first year doing [racing], I was really, really scared of driving on the track even though if it’s just a left turn the entire time,” said Ryan Wersblatt, captain of the Mansfield High School solar car racing team and a recent graduate of the school. “Being able to say I’m out here racing is such an honor.”
Wersblatt’s team is just one of 31 high school teams from around the country that competed in the challenge complete the most laps in a set time period over multiple days in a solar car they built.
The challenge competes at the stadium on odd numbered years and holds a cross-country race on even years.
“If the students are successful, it’s great, and if they’re not successful then they’ve learned failure and how to pick themselves back up and go on,” said Lehman Marks, who launched the annual challenge in 1995 when he was a science teacher at Mansfield High School. “That’s what makes them successful in college and in life.”
The element of failure in the challenge is why Marks likes to call it a “cooperation” between the different teams taking part as they all work to get their cars up and running.
The collaborative atmosphere is seen across the competition as different teams assist with broken-down cars, offering parts and other help, Lehman said.
Wersblatt’s team struggled with various break-downs throughout the competition but used teamwork to keep their car, Bahama Blue 2.0, racing around the stadium.
“When I joined the team, they would ask me to do things that were really simple and I didn’t know how, but now I can look at this car, and I know it from head to toe, from bottom to top,” Wersblatt said as he watched a teammate weld a broken part.
Mansfield High’s team is one of several from the North Texas area that competed. Among others was one from The Winston School in Dallas, which finished strongly Thursday.
“To see their accomplishments — the 16-hour days, the weekends with all the hard work — it really means so much to me,” said Charlene Olson, a science teacher at the school and director of Winston’s Solar Science Academy that the team hails from.
Winston’s team captain, Triton Shoup, chugged orange Gatorade after racing for two hours in 95-degree heat, but he said completing the challenge was the best part of being in the program.
“It’s amazing seeing a thing that you’ve spent an entire year on, then watching it drive and take off knowing all those hardships you went though paid off,” said Shoup, a rising senior who has been on the team since his freshman year.
The excitement from students is what keeps Marks coming back, year after year, to run the challenge. But he also called it a “responsibility on my shoulders” to keep inspiring students in the STEM field.
The sun that powers the cars competing in the competition still can challenge Marks, who is 76. But he manages the heat by observing the race from his air-conditioned truck — his “office,” as he calls it.
“People keep asking me when I’m going to retire, and I tell them I’ll never retire. I’ll retire when I fall over right there,” he said, pointing at the race’s starting line.