The University of Arizona’s solar car has qualified for a 2,400-mile race, thanks in no small part to two volunteers — a retired air traffic controller and a former businessman — who share a passion for solar energy and tenacious, can-do attitudes.
When Harland Goertz, of Sun City Vistoso, and Phil Davis, of Oro Valley, joined the Arizona Solar Racing Team in March, the car lay in pieces, the student team had dwindled to four, and funds were short.
“I could immediately see that they weren’t going to go to the race unless something was done drastically and fast,” said Goertz, a former air traffic controller and FAA manager.
Goertz met the students in January, when they displayed a retired racecar at a solar energy exhibition he helped organize.
When he discovered that this year’s car was far from race-ready, it wasn’t long before he and his friend Davis — both strong advocates for solar power — volunteered with the Arizona Research Institute for Solar Energy, which is aiding the solar car team.
They immediately sent the students out to recruit more team members. “We were hiring them off the street,” Goertz said.
Once the team had sufficient expertise and manpower, Goertz became the project manager, setting up a time schedule with deadlines and interim goals.
Meanwhile, Davis chased parts and helped solve mechanical problems.
Before retiring, Davis owned a dry cleaning and shoe repair business, and a packing and shipping business. If a machine broke down, employees stood around and customers waited for orders. So he learned how to fix things — fast. “You talk about baling wire and duct tape,” Davis said. He also got a lot of hands-on experience with wiring, motors and plumbing.
While the retirees provided the catalyst, students did all the design and construction work.
In recent weeks, the students “have been here 12, 15, 18, 20 hours a day doing what has to be done,” Davis said. “Some days, we’ve been here that many hours, too.”
Southern Arizona businesses also got heavily involved when Goertz and Davis asked for help, contributing parts, labor and funding — all of which were vital to reaching the starting line.
Showing sponsors a photo makes the project real, Goertz said. While buying equipment recently, he pulled out the car’s photo, which he carries like a proud granddad. “The person was so enthusiastic,” Goertz said. “He shook my hand all the way to the door. People are desperate. They think something needs to be done with solar energy.”
The car, dubbed Drifter 2.0, was originally built for the 2005 North American Solar Challenge, but failed to qualify. This year, students made major modifications to cure the car’s mechanical problems, including changes to improve handling and stabilize the ride.
To further head off qualifying glitches, Goertz wanted Drifter to run plenty of test laps.
San Manuel Airport greeted the students “with open arms” and allowed them to camp, Goertz said. “That’s where we did our initial training of the drivers and a shakedown of the mechanics of the car,” he added. “Then they told me about another road nearby at San Manuel where we could do a 50-mile straight run.”
The car had to be registered with Arizona’s Department of Transportation to drive on the highway, making it the state’s first street-legal solar car, according to a UA press release. Solar cells covering the car’s body charge batteries that turn its electric motor.
Davis, Goertz and the 11-member team are now at the race, which has 15 entries. It started Sunday in Plano, Texas and finishes in Calgary, Canada, on July 23.
The UA team also entered long-distance races in 1999, 2001, and 2003. During the 2001 American Solar Challenge, their car placed ninth overall and first in the stock class. In 2003, the car was 10th.
After this year’s race Goertz and Davis plan to help in building a completely new car for the next North American Solar Challenge.
Although the students had the engineering expertise to design and build a car, team leader Nick Swinteck, a junior in materials science and engineering, said he’s grateful that Goertz and Davis joined the effort. “They take care of everything from paperwork to funding to just organizing the group,” he said. “I’m so glad they’re here, and we’re learning a lot from them.”
Other students are just impressed that Goertz and Davis are there at all. “I’m going on 77, and some of the kids are pretty amazed at that,” Goertz said. “One of them said, ‘Man, in four years, you’re going to be 80!’ That sort of amused me.”