Source: Grosse Pointe News Online

Gentlemen, start your solar panels

by A.J. Hakim

September 27, 2012

On a recent September day at an Atlanta airport Chili’s restaurant, a trio of exhausted students from Grosse Pointe South High School rested at a table, the result of a daytrip to Texas planned on a whim six days prior.

“We left at 4 a.m. Saturday morning; we got back at 1:30 Sunday morning,” said Chris Fowler, president and co-founder of South’s Solar Car team, an entirely student-run group of about 25 to 30 — and counting — active members designing and constructing a 1.8X5-meter solar car to race in the 2013 Dell-Winston Solar Car Challenge next July at the Texas Motor Speedway. The race runs from Texas to Southern California.

The Texas daytrip was for a new team workshop, during which students met with event coordinator Dr. Lehman Marks and learned about electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, race rules, planning tips and other essential details.

“The most valuable part of that was probably Dr. Marks, the president of the race,” said Alex Knuth, the team’s operational director and co-founder. “He took us out to lunch and really explained what we’re going to have to do to get off the ground, difficulties of past teams, what to look out for, what to do.”

South is the first Michigan high school team participating in the competition. As with any startup, funding is essential to survival. From creation to race, the team figures cost around $35,000. The plan is to raise that by December, through sponsorships and donations, in time for a January to May build period.

“It’s what (Solar Car Challenge) recommended,” said Tristan MacKethan, treasurer and co-founder. “We also adjusted a little bit to fit where we are now. Because some teams are established, they already have big sponsors. We’re really starting from nothing and we’re going around, we’re talking to everyone in Metro Detroit, everyone in Grosse Pointe, trying to find out who’s willing to participate and help us out.”

To date, sponsors include The Big Salad, Red Bull and International Automotive Components. The team also has an Adopt-a-Cell, Block or Panel program, in which respective donations help pay for materials, and have set up donation jars at businesses around the Grosse Pointe area.

“One of our big goals for this year is to make this a Michigan, a Michigan builds program,” MacKethan said. “We want to source most, if not all of our parts for the solar car from Michigan-based companies. We want this to be a solar car built by Michigan students, funded by Michigan residents and sourced by Michigan companies. We really want it to be a collaborative effort between all of Michigan.”

Planning started, in earnest, at the end of last year. With a basic concept of what he wanted in mind, Fowler searched the Internet and found the Solar Car Challenge. Since then, the group has committed to research and organization, of which it’s modeling itself after the University of Michigan’s Solar Car team established in 1990, separating student involvement into three divisions — engineering, fundraising and operations — and about 5 to 10 subdivisions within each.

“I’m really happy to do this,” secretary Christian Mackey said. “There’s plenty of opportunities at South, but there’s not really anything this unique. A lot of things you can get in other clubs … When you’re in solar car, there’s no other racing team. I mean, there’s a mixed construction team with the robotics club, but it’s not the same. It’s the uniqueness of the solar car team I’m happy to be a part of.”

For others, it’s excitement in the commitment from its core members — Fowler, Knuth, Tristan MacKethan, Mackey, vice president Jeff Woolstrum and Alex MacKethan — and their drive to succeed that makes the group special.

“As far as commitment is concerned, it’s definitely something that’s going to be followed through until the end,” Alex MacKethan said. “It’s by no means a spontaneous choice that a couple high school kids are making and it may or may not happen. This is something that everybody in the group is very committed, very driven individuals and it’s one of those things we’re going to see through to the end and hopefully it can cultivate into a legacy we leave behind for future generations.”

For more information, or to sponsor the team, visit its website at