Solar cars are powering their way to Topeka

? They look like something built by the widget manufacturing company and produce about enough power from the sun’s rays to run a hair dryer.

Still, that power pushes these cars down the road at highway speeds on free fuel.

“They” are the vehicles entered in the biennial North American Solar Challenge. Twenty college teams made it to the starting line in Texas on Sunday with the goal of completing the longest solar-powered race, or “rayce” as organizers call it.

Monday, drivers piloted their rolling experiments from Weatherford, Texas, to Broken Arrow High School before heading north to Topeka. The staggered arrival of cars Monday afternoon and evening marked another checkpoint in a 10-day, 2,500-mile race from Austin, Texas, to Alberta, Canada.

“It’s going quite well,” said Chris Powers, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy, the race’s main sponsor. “It was cloudy this morning, but the lead cars had plenty of time to charge yesterday.”

The three race leaders pulled off U.S. Highway 75 and into the high school parking lot in the mid-afternoon. The teams from the universities of Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri-Rolla led the pack when they pulled into the crowded high school parking lot.

The remaining 15 cars – two teams dropped out during the race Sunday – started a little slower under the clouds but were picking up speed by midday, Powers said.

The Iowa State University solar car, left, drives at highway speed on U.S. Highway 82, Monday in Whitesboro, Okla., during the second day of the North American Solar Challenge. The Austin-to-Calgary race is the longest solar car race in the world.

No Oklahoma teams are entered in the race but competitors come from throughout the area. Along with the group from Rolla, there are teams from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Kansas State University and the University of Texas.

After about 30 minutes in Broken Arrow, where the teams met with the public, checked out the vehicles and changed drivers, the cars continued rolling, bound for the next checkpoint in Topeka. Stragglers among the more than two dozen teams will continuing rolling through Broken Arrow on Tuesday.

As the exact times indicate, this, the longest solar car race ever, is still more an endeavor for engineers and engineering solutions than a practical transportation.

Even in a summer of $2-a-gallon gasoline, a car with minimal padding, no cargo space, capacity of one and no air conditioning is more of a mobile experiment than a practical alternative. Organizers make it clear that the race should increase understanding of solar energy technology, provide an educational opportunity and allow for a demonstration of students’ abilities.

“No time soon, if ever, will we hop into a solar car,” Powers said. “As close as we may come to that is charging an electric car from solar panels on the roof of a home. That’s something we can do now.”