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South Whidbey High’s solar racer sets world record

The team that put together South Whidbey High School
The team that put together South Whidbey High School's solar drag racer, the Photon RaySur, stands next to their vehicle after its world-record run Saturday in Wenatchee. With junior Chad Yingling at the controls, the car traveled 820-feet in 29.5 seconds for a top speed of 25 mph.
— image credit: Tim Economu photo

A benevolent sun shone just long enough.

Enough for the South Whidbey High School solar drag racing team to become world champions in the unlimited category Saturday at the Third Annual Solar Drag Race in Wenatchee.

The solar-powered dragster — christened “Photon RaySur” — traveled 820-feet in 29.5-seconds with a top speed of 25 mph, breaking the old record of 17 mph.

For the record run, junior Chad Yingling was at the controls against Republic Middle School.

In their second race, Dylan Scoles took over against Brooks Solar, the previous record holder.

The increasingly hazy skies kept South Whidbey’s entry down to 21 mph in the second effort, still fast enough to win.

“Brooks Solar was still halfway down the course as we crossed the finish line,” advisor Tim Economu said. “After all the work, it’s weird that it’s all over.”

It was decided early on to enter the unlimited category — South Whidbey wanted to officially compete for and win the title of world’s fastest.

In the other races, Republic Middle School students won the high school division and Central Washington University’s team won the college division.

Sparkling cider was used to celebrate the student’s feat — enough was sprayed to permanently discolor their race T-shirts.

“It was very exciting,” Yingling recalled.

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 track.

The Photon RaySur used 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.

Yingling and Scoles, bike helmets firmly strapped down, lay on a wooden board facing forward while steering a mountain bike’s handle bars.

From a standing start, the car produced high torque and low speed, then higher speed as the racer traveled down the track.

Yingling said he simply flipped the switch and the car took off.

“It was easy to stay straight on the course and everything worked just right,” he said. “We were going pretty fast almost from the start and the other guys fell back within seconds.”

Even though his run lasted less than 30 seconds, Yingling felt it was faster.

“I could sense people cheering,” he said. “There was no wind and, well, it was just an awesome experience.”

Though everyone on the team — Yingling, Scoles, Ted Housego, Eric Vanderbilt-Mathews, Geoffrey Wilson and Matt Foote — had driven the car, only Yingling and Scoles had their driver licenses, making them street legal.

Economu said all the racers had the same number of panels, type of motor and were roughly the same weight. The car is 18 feet in length, 7 feet wide and 6 feet high.

“We had a different motor controller and transmission, but the big difference was less rolling resistance,” he said. “We worked hard on that and it paid off. It was a huge factor.”

Scoles said the team hopes to install the panels at the high school for an electric car charging station, or even sell power back to the power company.

“We’re going to be in the big Fourth of July parade at Maxwelton Beach, too,” Scoles added.

Last September, Economu, a local solar engineer, and high school teacher Jay Freundlich got together to see if they could find a way to involve students in a worthwhile project.

It had to be a project that would engage their intellect, not to mention their ability to scrounge recycled materials. The solar car project did just that; the steel frame was found in a scrap heap, the steering, tires and brakes came from old bicycles and braces were created from a soccer goal and irrigation pipes.

Economu said an eastern Washington high school teacher was so impressed with the Whidbey students and the class, he plans to start a similar program at his own school in the fall.

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.

In September, South Enders can get a visual look at the race; cameras from the television program “Evening Magazine” were on hand to capture all the action.

Both drivers agreed they’ll be back next year; race organizers expect the added publicity to prompt at least 10 competitors to enter the fray.

“We were definitely glad we won but now we have to defend our world record,” Scoles said.

“Exactly,” Yingling added. “We’ll be back.”

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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