South End’s solar racers keep their world record intact

The world land speed record for solar drag racers of 29.5 seconds — set in 2007 — remains solidly in the hands of the team from South Whidbey.

Though this year’s racers from Whidbey ran into technical problems June 20 in Wenatchee and couldn’t exceed that number, no one else did either.

“The race was run under sunny skies, the best we have ever seen,” reported organizer Tim Economu. “The day started bad for us, a shorted out electrical array, giving zero volts to the motor. Later, the continuously variable transmission failed.

“Only one other car bothered to show, Wenatchee High School, and they were having technical difficulties also,” Economu added. “Their rear wheel kept coming apart, despite their attempts at duct tape repair.”

In spite of having transmission problems that limited them to first gear, Whidbey Island’s 1.7-horsepower solar racer, driven by Paul Dickerson, won the unlimited division with a time of 36.19 seconds.

Wenatchee’s dragster, driven by J.D. Riggs, finished in 39.12. Wenatchee’s Krayson Gates led the second heat, only to be passed by Whidbey’s Kelly Keilwitz in the final 150 feet when Wenatchee’s rear drive sprocket failed. Whidbey finished in 36.8 and Wenatchee’s dragster with a 0.9-horsepower solar array crossed the finish line in 38.4 seconds.

Solar drag racers use only sunlight that can be captured by the vehicle over the short distance — no batteries are allowed. Racers start from zero and accelerate down a straight 820-foot track.

The car is 18 feet in length, 7 feet wide and 6 feet high. And only inches off the ground.

“When you’re driving, laying flat with arms out to steer, it feels like you are flying helter-skelter down the track,” said Brad Groce, who graduated last month from South Whidbey High School. “Very exhilarating.”

South Whidbey’s Photon RaySur normally uses eight large solar panels to feed a constant source of direct current electricity to a small motor attached by a cable to a rear wheel.

From a standing start, the car produced high torque and low speed, then higher speed as the racer traveled down the track. The cars reached unofficial speeds of up to 36 mph during preliminary trial runs.

This year, five students — Groce, Chad Yingling, Lori Spate, Trevor Ulrich and Ted Housego — were joined by an adult team of Dickerson, Economu, Keilwitz, Jay Freundlich, Kit Housego and Duran Ulrich.

“Our first race was the open class, which we took with ease with Paul driving and the transmission working,” Economu said. “In the second race, we won, but just barely, because our transmission had by then failed.”

The third race was against the other high school class, and the team had to strip down the car by removing half the solar modules, or 800 watts of power versus the normal 1,600 watts they usually run.

“That proved to be our undoing, as the Wenatchee High School kids won by a hair,” Economu said.

Three years ago, Economu, owner of Offgrid Engineering in Clinton, and science teacher Freundlich got together to see if they could find a way to engage students in a worthwhile project.One that would engage their intellect, not to mention their ability to scrounge recycled materials.

The Photon RaySur’s steel frame was found in a scrap heap, the steering, tires and brakes from old bicycles, and braces were created from a soccer goal and irrigation pipes.

The original idea for the world’s only solar drag race came from Jim White, who runs the commercial energy efficiency programs for the Chelan County Public Utility District.

Solar panels had been installed at many locations the utility serves, including all the local schools. But the panels are static by nature, and White thought a drag race would be a fun and inventive way to spread the word about solar energy.

For three straight years, the team from perpetually-cloudy Whidbey has beaten all comers in sunny Wenatchee.

“We have great kids and great support; we’ll show ’em again next year,” Economu said.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or

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