ISU's 'Team Mercury' places fifth in Formula Sun Grand Prix Competition

Last year, a group of ISU students were hoping to race a solar-powered car in the Formula Sun Grand Prix competition. Unfortunately, the car was not in good enough condition to reach team goals.

This year, ISU's Team Mercury, a multidisciplinary group of students who have dedicated hours to its solar-powered car, made sure to erase all memories of last summer's competition and cement a memorable performance at the 2009 Formula Sun Grand Prix "rayce" in early June.

Team Mercury raced its car, "Mercury II," 310 total laps around a closed track at the Motorsports Ranch racecourse in Cresson, Texas, to finish in fifth place overall, a feat members found gratifying competing against teams across the country.

"We had motor failure on the race track [in 2008]," Al Hackel, mechanical team leader, said. "We went over everything with a fine-toothed comb the last year. It really paid off with big accomplishments. It was really nice to be out on the track after seeing all of the time spent. Everybody performed wonderfully and we functioned well together."

Vehicles that entered the race had to be powered solely by sunshine, using photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity.

Team Mercury brought seven team members as well as physics professors and staff members. Hackel, along with operations team leader Tony Battaglia and electrical leader Ryan Meitl, piloted a hardworking cast of ISU students in the preparation and racing.

Illinois State was in striking distance of totaling more laps than three of the top teams, but it was the University of Minnesota that finished above the competition, amounting to 487 total laps.

"When you look at what other teams had as a budget, things went really well considering what we had available," Hackel said. "It's almost like running a business. It's scheduling people to work, sticking to a budget and a tremendous amount of planning."

After a disappointing showing in 2008, Team Mercury was determined to revive their solar-powered car and spent a year rehabbing.
At the competition, the main hurdle came with a two-day "scrutineering," a pre-race procedure during which all solar-powered vehicles were inspected to make sure they met race criteria and safety requirements. After that process, teams were considered good to go. ISU passed the "scrutineering" procedure with flying colors.

"We were the second team to qualify out of the scrutineering," Brian Clark, advisor and physics professor, said. "I think they did a great job over the last year. This provided real world professional experience."

ISU totaled 77 laps the first day, finishing with 125 laps and 108 laps in the second and third day, respectively.

Team Mercury's fastest lap was three minutes and 20 seconds. Hackel, a music major, said Team Mercury boasts a wide array of diversity and said the experience is for all any students.

Team Mercury members were grateful for their support of the project, which came from Illinois State, the ISU Physics Department and a variety of sponsors who have donated money, equipment, materials and other in-kind gifts.

"We'd certainly like to thank our sponsors," Clark said.