The reality of driving 1,900 miles across Australia may not be exactly what was presented in the 1996 movie, Race the Sun, a romanticized comedy-drama based on a high-school team that competed in the 1990 World Solar Challenge.
But it remains an impressive accomplishment to design, support, and drive a completely solar-powered car from Darwin to Adelaide, even on the paved roads that now exist.
This is some of the most isolated and open country on the planet. Only in the last 10 years has there even been train service from Darwin to Adelaide, for instance.
So the World Solar Challenge routinely pits the cutting edge of aerodynamics and solar power systems against the harsh realities of the great Outback down under.
Desolation, road trains, kangaroos
The specially built, astoundingly light and aerodynamic vehicles that participate in this test of engineering and tenacity must share the road with an occasional passenger car.
But the real challenges is the buffeting produced by the massive 170-foot long "road trains" that move commercial goods across the outback. They're composed of up to six semi trailers linked together, and can take far more than a mile to bring to a stop--just like a freight train.
Fortunately, driving is limited to daylight hours--when the solar panels on the cars function--because at night, kangaroos roam, any one of them capable of putting one of the lightweight 400-pound solar vehicles totally out of commission.
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These purpose-built icons of efficiency have no provision for such driver amenities as roll-down windows or air conditioning, so it's a good thing the event takes place during Australian springtime. Temperatures in the outback can exceed 120 degrees in the peak of summer.
Not one, but two fast-food joints
About half-way through their 2,000-mile journey, the solar cars pass the great center of Australia and the city of Alice Springs.
Alice Springs does not look at all the way it's portrayed in the 2003 comedy Kangaroo Jack, for it will provide the teams a civilized stopover that has both McDonald’s and Burger King (known there as Hungry Jack’s) on offer.
One of the small towns along the route, Coober Pedy--about 1500 miles into the “race"--is claimed to be the opal capital of the world. It stays so hot much of the year that almost everybody lives underground in man-made caves.
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U.S. high-school entrants
Top Contenders for 2011 from the U.S. include well-supported teams from Stanford University , UC, Berkeley, and last year's third-place finisher, the University of Michigan. Also, Principia College will field a team, as will a group of students from Houston High School (in Mississippi).
The high-school engineering students will be driven by the inspiration of the Race The Sun movie. The high-school team from Hawaii, whose story is told (loosely) in the movie, took part in and completed the event in 1990, taking 18th place overall. For Houston High School, it will be their third appearance at this world-level competition.
The 2011 Challenge takes place from October 16 to October 23, and 42 teams from all over the globe will be competing for the honor of being deemed the most efficient solar-powered car in the world.