Archive for July, 2012

ASC log 7/12/12: The Seventeenth Day

Me jumping for joy on the track we raced on. This is probably the last time I will see this track. Unfortunate that I forgot to remove my name tag…

 

Today is the last day of FSGP! At the end of today, awards will be given out for the three teams who ran the most laps in the past 3 days, and, more importantly, we will have a set of teams that are qualified for ASC 2012. As of this morning, UMich, Iowa, Minnesota, Principia, OSU, Indiana, Western Michigan, and CalSol have qualified. The main teams we are rooting for to qualify are Montreal and MIT.

 

Apart from cheering on those two teams and trying to help them in any way we can, most of our time today is devoted to organizing our caravan vehicles and buying new supplies to pass the caravan check. We actually ended up going to Walmart to buy plastic boxes to better organize our tools.

 

One of the more entertaining parts of today was when Michigan State finally entered the track – even though they qualified for FSGP last night, they still had more to work on this morning, so it was relieving for everyone to see them actually make it onto the track. They received massive applause from everyone as they drove onto the track. They are the true underdogs of this race.

 

Michigan State has two things going for it, and two things only – it has lead-acid batteries, which can draw a lot of power at once, and it is very heavy, which means it’s stable around turns. These qualities are very suboptimal for a long distance solar car race, where you want a light car with efficient batteries. However, they do make for fast and hard turns, which solar cars are typically not good at making. This resulted in a couple of interesting situations on the track. The first was when MIT, a notoriously fast and light team, attempted to pass Michigan State on a tight turn. Michigan State took the turn a lot faster than MIT was expecting, and they actually got dangerously close to a crash. In the end Michigan State pulled out ahead, and there was some brief debate as to whether anyone should get an infraction for being unsafe. I witnessed a heated argument between one of the head scrutineers and an MIT student, who disagreed on “whose fault” the near-collision was. In the end they decided it was MIT’s fault for attempting an unsafe pass. Later, Michigan State actually passed University of Michigan around the same corner, which was fucking hilarious to everyone because University of Michigan is a world-class team and Michigan State’s team was founded like a month ago and their car sucks ass. That was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and I think all of the teams in the pits other than UMich enjoyed it immensely.

 

Montreal was skating on thin ice today, as they were scrambling to make enough laps in time (their laps from yesterday were not counted), and if either of their tires went out, it would take a while to replace and they would lose too much time on the track to be able to qualify. Luckily, they never had this problem, and them as well as MIT eventually qualified for ASC by the end of the day! Even though they are our competitors, this was a big victory for us too, because all of the teams that we like have qualified. This is going to be a good race. Michigan State ended up “conditionally qualifying,” which basically means they get to start off ASC, and if they can keep up with the stage stops, then they can continue racing, otherwise they will be disqualified. I think it’s unlikely that they will be able to do this because their car is so janky, but it’s cool that they even get to start the race with the rest of us.

 

By the end of the day we had passed the caravan check (finally all green on our qualifying checklist!), and celebrated with a free dinner at the FSGP award ceremony. UMich got 1st, Iowa got 2nd, and Western Michigan got 3rd. There were some other titles given out, such as fastest Slalom time (Michigan State) and fastest lap time (Iowa), neither of which were won by the best team, which made for an interesting ceremony.

 

We ended the day by doing a massive clean sweep of the track where we’ve been staying all day for the past week, picking up trash and disposing of it. It was a great team effort, and we left the Monticello Raceway probably cleaner than it started. We went home, made some decals for the caravan, listened to music, ate delicious watermelon from the Jewish market, and went to bed happy and rested. Tomorrow is display day, where we will all set up our cars at the Rochester Institute of Technology and show it off to the public before heading out the next morning to start ASC!

 

I’m running out of inspirational music so I’ll just post sun-related songs…. this one in particular was among scout car’s favorites during the trip.

ASC log 7/11/12: The Sixteenth Day

Racing on the Monticello Motor Club track – currently passing OSU’s Phoenix.

 

Today is the day. After almost a week of toil, we finally made it out onto the track! With our horn test and our brake test over with at long last, we set up camp by the track and watched as Derek, Jack, and I made our way around the loop again and again. We each did about 30+ laps, myself finishing the day by pulling in at 4 PM, having clocked Impulse’s 109th lap around the track – we needed 105 today to qualify. WE’RE GOING TO ASC!

 

Our team was ecstatic that despite missing the entire first day, driving slowly and carefully to conserve our short supply of tires, and getting onto the track later than other teams in the morning, we still qualified with time and tires to spare. The perfect weather conditions probably helped a lot with that – it was sunny and cool all day long. We will probably not even drive tomorrow – since we are already qualified, and there is little to no chance we will place in FSGP, we can just sit tight and not risk getting into an accident or needlessly burning through tires.

 

As for my experience driving, it was a lot of fun – before I had only ever driven on flat, straight, 1-lane public roads, and in a full caravan no less, which feels restricting. Here I was in complete control. I got to control my own speed, figure out the most efficient ways to take corners and go up and down hills, I passed other teams, I got passed, and I posed for cameras that took pictures as I drove by. I could see the advantages and disadvantages of the other teams on the road first hand – for instance, Iowa’s car was fast but it lost power quickly due to its small battery pack, so even though it passed us in the morning, we started passing it later in the day. Other cars were small and quick but took corners poorly, like MIT’s.

 

The whole day went spectacularly, not a single hitch. We had to change a tire but that was expected – most all teams had to change multiple throughout the day. This was definitely one of the best days of my ASC experience so far. And what better way to top off the day than with FREE FOOD! As the teams left the track and started setting up to charge their arrays, University of Michigan set up a food station coming out of their massive semi. They had hot dogs, chips, cookies, drinks, and cereal that they gave out to all of the other teams.

 

While snacking on UM’s wealth and generosity, we went around and talked to other teams about their cars as they sat and charged. We discovered that Michigan State qualified for FSGP, and will be driving out on the track tomorrow. This was super impressive to us, because their car is the ghetto-est car we’d ever seen, and was half built during scrutineering itself.

 

As we packed up to go back to the hotel, we received our first bit of bad news for the day – we failed our caravan check! Basically what this means is that we need to go shopping for supplies for our caravan. This is fine, because we have all day tomorrow and all we need is some cones and radios.

 

That night, instead of cooking food, we rewarded ourselves by going out and indulging in some delicious Wendy’s. Don’t judge us – after having hastily-cooked-in-the-dark-on-a-budget food for the past week, eating some fast food was actually really good. I myself ordered 5 chicken sandwiches and 2 small fries off the dollar menu and had a tasty and filling meal for $7, blowing everybody else’s meals out of the water.

 

We laughed and joked and relaxed for the rest of the night. This was the goal for which we had worked so hard and traveled so far – the privilege of competing in the American Solar Challenge. The first time our team has competed in this race for many years, far longer than anyone had been on the team. Things looked really bleak for the past few days, as we kept running into brick walls. Brick walls cannot stop us. We will crash through them.

ASC log 7/10/12: The Fifteenth Day

Impulse being put through the horn test – the green shirt in the background has a decibel measuring device.

 

This has easily been the longest week of my life. So much has happened in the past few days, it’s hard to keep them together – time is getting mixed up in my head. This is partially why I want to keep up this blog, even though I am so late on actually posting. Writing things down as they happen helps me remember.

 

I’m going to keep this post short. Basically, we fixed the horn problem, passed the horn test, and finally completely passed scrutineering with green flags on all stages. As we turned on the car and tested the systems, we found that our experimentation with the horn blew some electrical component, causing HCI (human-car interface) to malfunction. We took about 3 hours to debug this issue so far, with little progress.

 

We went out to get some food and came back, to see that other teams are making decent progress on the track – each team has logged between 30 and 70 laps today. Good – we want a lot of competition.

 

Back to debugging, and I feel completely useless. There’s nothing I can do to help this problem, I don’t understand the system – this is out of my control. Everything is abstract and not physical. Even with electrical engineers attempting to explain things to me, potential solutions that I come up with don’t actually make sense, and just make it more obvious that I don’t know what I’m talking about. However I’m getting frustrated that there is so much talk about what might be the problem and no actual action. I like action. But I guess in situations like this, we don’t yet know the action we want to take. Anyways, I can feel at this point that I’m losing my nerve, and that I need to stay positive. Even though these problems keep coming, giving up now is not an option.

 

Throughout all this, OSU remains my role model – they’re very efficient, well organized, motivated, helpful, generous, and they have spare parts for EVERYTHING, which is something that I wish we could say for our team. However they help keep my spirits up.

 

After a few hours, we eventually fix our electrical issues by the late afternoon, and are about to move onto the track. Just as Jack is driving out, he sees smoke and gets out immediately. Upon closer inspection, some wires were worn away and had shorted. Implementing a fix to this takes a few hours, and means that we definitely cannot rayce today. At least we have the next two days to qualify out on the track. This wire fix should be finished by this evening, at least. This is still frustrating though. We can’t keep hitting roadblocks like this.

 

This song title is an accurate description of the past few days.

ASC log 7/9/12: The Fourteenth Day

Impulse performing the braking test on wet pavement. (and failing miserably)

 

Natural selection has weeded out our most easily remedied problems, and now the most annoying ones remain. We spent literally the entire day trying to pass the brake and horn tests. However, we were able to pass the brake test eventually, and the story is pretty dramatic so I’ll tell it here.

 

So for the brake test, you have to drive the car over wet pavement and brake within a certain amount of time. A guy is waiting there giving you flag signals. When he drops the flag, then you have to start braking, and they time how long it takes you to come to a complete stop. The braking time must be at most one tenth of your speed when the flag was dropped. For instance, if you are going 30 mph when they drop the flag, then you need to stop in 3 seconds. If you are going 40 mph then you need to stop in 4 seconds, etc. So we were traveling around 30 mph consistently, and braked in 4 seconds consistently, leaving us 1 second behind – on our best runs, we would be .3 or .4 behind. We went through this test for hours, trying to perfect our braking technique. We eventually decided that something fundamental about the car must change. Around 3, we pulled off the track and brainstormed for a bit.

 

We had two primary things on our mind: tire pressure and weight distribution. Decreased tire pressure would lower the efficiency of the car, but cause us to brake faster. This is a desperate measure because dropping our tire pressure would drastically reduce our performance in ASC, but we might have to do it in order to qualify at all. The other option is changing the weight distribution, either by moving weight around on the car or adding weight to it. Since the brakes are on the front wheels, we want to put more weight on the front half of the car in order to improve our braking. Up until now, we had kept the ballast in a box underneath the driver – for our lightest driver, the ballast is about 50 pounds. If we shifted this to the front of the car, it would significantly change the weight distribution on the wheels, but this would require getting a new box and mounting it, and we were short on time since the dynamic tests are finished forever at 7 PM.

 

We quickly formulated a plan: immediately drop the tire pressure from 80 psi to 50 psi and try the braking test. This is the fastest possible solution, and the worst for efficiency. While that is happening, we send out some people to find a box of the right size and strength requirements to hold a 50 pound ballast, and when they get back, try mounting it in the front of the car to shift the weight.

 

This is when things got pretty interesting. At 50 psi, all 3 of our drivers were eventually able to pass the brake test. While we were attempting the test, we got a call from the group that went out to get a ballast box, informing us that they had rear ended someone in my car. I was annoyed, but I didn’t have time to worry about this now. Luckily nobody was hurt since it was just a fender bender, and they sat tight and got a police report. In the meantime we sent out another car on the box mission. By the time we passed the test with the low tire pressure and returned to our camp, we had a new box, and it was perfect. We mounted the box, moved the ballast to the new box, and got ready to increase the tire pressure back to 80. We figured that since we already passed the test, attempting again with a higher pressure can only help us – the tire pressure at which you pass the brake test needs to be locked in for all of FSGP and ASC, so we want to pass with the highest pressure possible. However, when we went to increase the pressure, we realized that the repeated brake tests had worn away a tire almost to the point of rupturing. We tried to replace the tire, but it took us much longer than expected – it is very hard to change tires with the limited tools that we have on hand. By the time we were able to do it, it was already 7:30 PM – dynamic testing should have ended by now. We asked around and discovered that because many teams needed more time, they had extended the deadline to 8 PM. It’s go time. We loaded up the cars, got the driver and radios set up, and headed out onto the track. We got there and had to wait in the queue as other teams took the test. We finally got on the track at 7:53 PM. We went around the track, and our driver performed the brake test. On the very first try, at 7:56 PM, we passed. We were now set to race at 80 psi tire pressure, our optimal pressure. We did exactly what we needed to do, and we are prepared to face the challenges of ASC head on.

 

But, there is still one more thing we need to fix – the horn. The horn is still too quiet, and we couldn’t work on it while attempting the brake tests. We went out and got a few new horns of various decibal ratings. In our process of testing the new horns, we ended up blowing a transistor on a key PCB. Now we need to fix that and fix the horn. It feels like 2 steps forward, 3 steps back. I had no idea how to fix this issue – this was entirely electrical and I had no idea what was going on.  If we don’t pass this, we don’t race, and FSGP starts tomorrow. We don’t need to race on all 3 days of FSGP in order to qualify for ASC; we only need to either do 105 laps on one day, or 160 laps on two consecutive days to qualify. So we are not completely fucked yet. But we are still running out of time, and I would be fucking pissed if we didn’t race because our horn was literally three decibels short of regulation. There’s nothing I can do now, and as for the team, it’s getting late – we will have to solve this problem tomorrow while other teams are racing, and hope that we can qualify for ASC in the latter two days of FSGP. As of tonight, only seven teams out of the 18 that signed up have passed scrutineering. Two gave up and stayed home, meaning that 9 teams in total are still trying to pass scrutineering when FSGP starts. These are unprecedented numbers – either the teams this year are particularly unprepared, or the regulations / scrutineers are particularly strict. I think both are probably true. Either way, it’s not a race if there are only 7 teams qualified. That’s so boring. I want at least 10 teams to be raycing for it to really be interesting. I guess we just have to hope for the best.

 

I went home and cooked pasta while electrical people tried debugging the horn problem, but eventually we all came back home to eat. We have to get up earlier than usual tomorrow, as there is a photo shoot will all of the teams and cars at 7:30 AM, and a meeting before that. We need to get some rest so that tomorrow we are fully prepared to fix our horn problem and to race in FSGP if we do.

 

Another day, another struggle. Back to work tomorrow. We’re so close! But our time is running out.

ASC log 7/8/12: The Thirteenth Day

Impulse getting ready for dynamic stability tests.

 

Second day of scrutineering! Today we got a lot of things checked off, and are close to passing. We fixed some mechanical issues, giving us a green in mechanical – we passed various tests such as figure 8, u-turn, lights, visibility, and rear-view camera. We had meat, cheese, and bread for lunch, which was a rather tasty departure from our typical PB&J. A lot of things went right today – we are slowly and steadily approaching success in scrutineering. One unfortunate thing about today was the noticeable lack of team Montreal – they usually work near us, but they were gone today. They had a lot of things to work on, with multiple red flags, so we suspect that they went away to fix things and come back. We had a sinking feeling that they might have given up and went home, and we prayed that was not the case because there are few enough teams here already. We don’t mind the competition. We want as many people here racing with us as possible – otherwise, what’s the fun in it?

Later in the day, by 5 PM, we got to move on to dynamic scrutineering, having eliminated all of our red flags. They randomly selected our drivers to complete the brake and slalom tests. I watched and took pictures / video as our first driver, Jack, eventually passed slalom, but not without knocking a cone down on his first run. We did not pass the brake test, but we got pretty close so we think we could figure it out when we have more time tomorrow. Tomorrow is devoted 100% to dynamic testing for all the teams. In the meantime I hopped in and passed slalom on my second try, although I failed the brake test just like Jack. We couldn’t seem to pass it before dynamic testing closed at 7 PM – hopefully we can complete it tomorrow.

Once we passed the slalom test, we only had three more things to do before passing scrutineering – pass the horn test and the brake test and replace a fuse. The fuse is easy because we can just go out and buy one (although it’s taken a decent amount of searching), and we’ll have all day for the brake test. We’ve been having unexpected problems with the horn. It was a part of the car that went under everyone’s radar because we typically never use it. However, it is very important during FSGP because you are required to honk whenever you pass someone. We failed the horn test because our horn does not reach the required decibel rating from a certain distance away. We tried to solve it by moving the horn to a different location so that the sound would travel better, but that didn’t seem to work. Our plan tomorrow is to get a new horn.

Anyways, we packed up, went home, and no one was working on dinner so we ended up just getting some McDonald’s very late at night and going to bed. I was obstinate so I ate some random leftovers at home instead of McDonalds, but I kind of regretted it later when everyone was eating delicious McChickens. Oh well. My body is a temple blah blah. We’re eating pretty late, so time for bed now.

 

We have one more day to solve our issues before the racing starts. Cross our fingers.

ASC log 7/7/12: The Twelfth Day

I needed to escape the vehicle in 10 seconds to pass regulation – I got out in 6.

 

Our first true day of scrutineering. This is when the real competition starts, not the race itself. We will be facing engineering challenges throughout all 3 days of scrutineering, and if we don’t fix what we need to in time, then we’re not going to race. It has begun.

A LOT of things happened today. We went through Body/Sizing, Driver, Electrical, Array, and BPS scrutineering today. Driver was fun for me, and the only stage that I was really involved in – as one of the three drivers of Impulse, I needed to get weighed in and assigned a ballast, and I needed to pass an egress test (pictured above). I also have to wear this annoying green wristband for the next few weeks to signify that I’m a driver. As for the rest of our scrutineering stages, the only one we passed completely was BPS – which is very good, because it’s hard to debug and it means that our car will not blow up. With BPS working and with everyone having passed the egress test, we have our safety systems down. It also helped that our Electrical Lead flew out just for scrutineering to help with this. For all of the other stages, we either didn’t finish completely or received red or yellow flags. Receiving red or yellow flags means that you can’t compete in FSGP or ASC. There are other flags which signify different things but I won’t go into detail. So, we have until the end of scrutineering (ends on Monday) to work out our red and yellow flags and turn them into green ones.

The weather has not been great today – there was cloud cover throughout the day, and at times it rained. The first time it rained, there was a mad rush for everyone to get tarps over their cars and other equipment. This was around the time when we were going to get lunch (1 PM), which we typically eat out of the back of a cooler in my trunk, but this was impossible in the rain. Everyone decided that they wanted to go back to the hotel and come back for our next scrutineering stage at 3.

This is when the day went in a drastically different direction for me. As we packed up our stuff into our cars and prepared to drive away, I observed the teams who set up on either side of us. On the right is University of Michigan – not only do they have a giant truck in which to easily store all of their things, they have a very large and sturdy BASE-X tent which probably cost thousands of dollars. They did not care at all about the rain because they have the money and the success to afford such a contraption. On the left is OSU. They drove their cars up to their trailer to form a triangle, and affixed a couple tarps over it to create their own make-shift rain fort. They worked on setting this up and protecting their car and tools while wearing shorts and t-shirts in the rain, and they all got completely soaked. In the meantime we packed up as quickly as possible and left for our hotel with our tail in between our legs. The Phoenix withstood the rain while the Bear fled. As we drove away and other teams receded into trailers and tents, team OSU stood in a circle and danced in the rain. At this point I knew that our team was not as good as it could be, and I wanted to do something about it. I kicked myself into high gear.

I sped back to the hotel, started setting up food, and had it ready for everyone when their cars arrived on my tail. As soon as everyone was done eating I directed clean up and led them out. It was apparent that others did not share my revelation, so I needed to transfer my sense of urgency to them. I needed to kick the rest of the team into high gear too if we were to be competitive.

We got back to the track to find that the rain had let up. We set up our canopy and had tarps at the ready should we need them. Fastforward through several scrutineering stages that I mentioned above, and it’s 7 PM. Scrutineering is over and the sun is going down – we get to stay at the track until 11 PM when it closes, giving us 4 hours of working time. The rest of the team wants to go back to the hotel to eat. This is not an option for me. I convince them to stay and continue working. We have to improve our array insulation, our battery box ventilation, and our belt strap mounting, and we need to eat. I assign a couple people to work on tasks in parallel, and suddenly I can see the team jumping into action as well. People go where they are needed and start getting things done. A duo is sent out to bring dinner to us, although in the meantime we are fed by University of Minnesota who has a ton of extra spaghetti. We work efficiently on 5 parallel tasks through 10 PM, and we’re packed up and gone by 10:45. This evening was insanely productive, and our team began to show its true colors. If we can work like this throughout ASC, we will be highly competitive. I need to make sure I can keep my energy up to match the energy of the team.

Another thing I wanted to talk about – the team collaboration here is fantastic. Everyone wants to help everyone else. When we didn’t have enough ballast, we got some donated from Principia. When we were hungry, University of Minnesota fed us. When we needed nylon peel ply, we asked around and got some. After they left for the night, OSU let us continue using their generator. In fact OSU actually passed all of scrutineering today, finishing even before University of Michigan. With 2 days left to go; they plan to use those days to help the rest of the teams in whatever way they can. This is such a great environment. A particularly endearing moment was when we saw the French-speaking Montreal team pull out a small bubble wand, and we matched them with one that we bought for 97 cents at Walmart. We took a short break to play with bubbles for a good 5 minutes while onlookers took pictures.

And with that, I go to bed at 2 AM to wake up at 6:30. Perhaps not the wisest of choices…

 

We have a lot of momentum from today. We don’t have any more time to waste!

ASC log 7/6/12: The Eleventh Day

Oregon State University’s top shell, complete with phoenix decal.

This is really cool. I’m starting to feel like I’m part of something big. We rolled in at 2:30 sharp for registration, to find that many teams were already here for their own scrutineering. I got a name tag, signed a waiver, and went to go explore.

University of Michigan, Western Michigan University, Iowa State University, Principia, University of Minnesota, and Oregan State University were all here already, as well as a couple other teams that arrived later. It is a very surreal experience to see other teams and their cars. All these people went through the same or similar experiences as us, faced the same challenges, had to meet the same regulations. However, all of the cars have their own style, character, and abilities. It’s almost as if each car is a different person, a collective personification of the team that made it.

My favorite car by far is OSU’s. Their car was destroyed about a year ago, when a battery pack exploded and the car burned to the ground. The driver escaped relatively unscathed, but only by seconds, and it was scary for a lot of teams, acting as a pretty severe wake-up call that this is a dangerous hobby. Anyways, if any of you know me you know how much time I’ve spent on this car, and the thought of Impulse being destroyed is heartbreaking. OSU’s car was obliterated, and then they remade it in less than a year for this race. The amount of time we spent making minor changes from WSC to today is the same amount of time it took them to build and test their entire car, and it’s going to be very competitive with ours. They even have a speaker system set up just for fun. Their steering wheel runs Windows. It’s not the best car here – that honor belongs to University of Michigan, the team that has dominated ASC for years, and placed third in WSC competing against the world’s best teams. However, I’m much more impressed by OSU’s ability to bounce back from such a devastating loss. They have appropriately renamed their car Phoenix, and it has a large phoenix decal on the top of the canopy. The car is painted red-orange and the team color is orange. I mean, how cool is that? I’ll be rooting for them all the way.

Anyways I could go on and on about the differences in design between the cars or about how I feel about each team, but for now I’ll just tell you this – I’m glad that I came on this journey. Getting to know all of these different cars and teams is an amazing experience. Hopefully I will have time to do that whilst also dealing with the hassles of scrutineering.

Tonight we went home and ate good old fashioned chili and rice, and went off to bed. We’re waking up at 5:30 tomorrow, since the Monticello Motor Club (where we go through scrutineering and FSGP) opens up to teams at 6 AM. We want to take full advantage of the day. Night y’all!

Much like OSU, we will carry on through the fire and the flames.