MIT's modest budget might have been the team's greatest asset, for it encouraged the crew to produce a reliable vehicle without overreaching. "Not everything in MIT's car looked really good, but it worked really good," says Brett Gaviglio, Cal Poly's leader. "We have a saying: Good engineering will always beat out good money."
In contrast, Michigan arrived with a cutting-edge car sponsored by IBM and Ford. One hundred fifty students, including fundraisers plucked from the business school, contributed to that team's effort. To everyone's surprise Michigan's reign sputtered to an end when mechanical troubles forced the Wolverines to withdraw after the fourth leg. " Michigan had money to burn," Tamai says, "but money doesn't mean anything if you don't get the car on the road and beat it up. Testing is the absolute key."
Where college kids travel, debauchery often follows. Not on this road trip. Teams had the sober-faced discipline of NASA workers. They had no choice: As soon as they finished one day's leg, they had to prepare for the next. Parked on football fields at community colleges and high schools, some crew members hustled to unsnap the solar-paneled covers from their chassis and face them into the waning afternoon sunlight to restore their energy supply. Meanwhile others scouted the next day's terrain. Because drivers had to coax their cars up to 55 mph on a meager two horsepower—the strength of a portable hair dryer—an unanticipated stoplight or hill could squander hard-won momentum.
Race officials impounded the cars at 9 p.m. to prevent late-night tinkering. After that, teams met in their support vans to ponder the next day's conditions. Some schools brought their own meteorologists, and some downloaded weather photos from the Internet. "It's like preparing for any sport," says Scott Grabow, a graduate adviser to the Minnesota team. "But instead of practicing layups and passes, you run sets of numbers. It's a brain sport."
Just as the tortoise beat the hare, so the slower solar car often prevails by conserving energy; the trick is to go as fast as possible without resorting to the battery, which should be used only in inclement weather. "It's management," Gaviglio says. "If you make the wrong choice in the morning, it kills you."
Most teams rose at 5:30 a.m. to resume recharging with the earliest sunlight. Just before the 10 a.m. start, they would hoist the photovoltaic canopies back onto their cars. Then the drivers would scrunch into their cockpits suspended three feet off the asphalt. "From that low position, the whole road is one big mirage," says Tamai. "It's like driving into a big lake. You can't see potholes or pebbles."
The race coincided with the longest days of the year, and abundant sunshine propelled the convoy across the Midwestern prairie. But clouds obscured the sun as the cars crossed eastern Colorado on the penultimate leg, a 171-mile run to the outskirts of Denver. Driving rain and lightning forced the early finishers beneath the seats of a high school stadium in Aurora before they could deploy their solar arrays.
The final day was meant to be a 52-mile sprint to Golden. The finish line awaited at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, nestled at the foot of the Rockies. In sunshine MIT would have had no difficulty preserving its 46-minute lead over Minnesota, but anything could happen in foul weather. "Nobody knows how much energy MIT has left in its battery," said Gaviglio, who, with his Cal Poly teammates, stood third before the leg began. "If they're out of juice, we can pass them."
The entire pack limped up the rain-drenched road the next morning, sucking the last ions from depleted batteries. MIT crept along at 12 mph, its cumulative lead after 1,100 miles narrowed to 15 minutes.
Then the unthinkable happened: With the finish line just 30 miles away, Manta's electrical system died. "We all freaked out," said Wandy Sae-Tan, a computer scientist. "We all started screaming." Infiltrating rainwater had short-circuited the motor controller, which regulates the flow of electricity to the motor. The crew replaced it within 15 minutes, and Manta rolled on to beat Minnesota by 18:49. Cal Poly finished third, four minutes behind Minnesota.