Race to the Future
The Newburgh Free Academy’s Solar Racing Team takes the lead in building energy-efficient automobiles
Space-age speedster: This Solar Racing Team car appeared on the Discovery Channel’s Battleground Earth
Photograph courtesy of Dell-Winston Solar Challenge and NFA Solar Racing Team
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It’s 2 p.m. on a crisp Saturday afternoon in early October. About half a dozen teenagers crowd around a car in the garage of Chris Eachus’s Newburgh home, buffing and building, tinkering and tightening. While teenagers have been slaving over their cars for decades, there was something different about this scene: The car looked more like a rectangular flying saucer than a vehicle you’d see cruising around the Hudson Valley.
Eachus, a physics teacher at Newburgh Free Academy High School (NFA), is the advisor of the school’s Solar Racing Team, a unique club that designs, builds, races, and exhibits its own solar and electric vehicles. The club — the most established group of its kind in the state — has been one of the school’s extracurricular activities since 1993, and their cars have been traversing the country for years competing in (and winning) races. Their latest vehicle, however, recently zoomed into the national spotlight after appearing on the Discovery Channel’s new series, Battleground Earth. The reality show features Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and hip-hop superstar Ludacris going tête-à-tête in a rock-versus-rap series of eco-challenges — such as making bio-fuel — as they learn how to reduce their carbon footprint.
So how did the NFA solar team go from the banks of the Hudson to Hollywood? Just as the school year was winding down last May, Eachus received a phone call from Ameresco, a Newburgh-based independent energy solutions company that supports the racing team, asking if they would lend their car to the show. “The Discovery Channel decided that in one of the 10 episodes they would do a solar car race,” explains Eachus. “They contacted several colleges, but none of them would take the time to do it except for Stanford University. Then they found Ameresco, and saw that they had donated $20,000 and equipment for us to build — and win — the Dell-Winston School Solar Car Challenge in 2007.”
It seemed almost impossible that the team could get their car ready in just five days for the shoot in Los Angeles. But Eachus agreed to do the show without hesitation. “I had students in my garage Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday until 3 a.m. working on the car,” he smiles. Once “everything was perfect,” the finished vehicle — a 16-foot-long, 480-pound titanium rectangle on wheels — was loaded onto an 18-wheeler and shipped out to sunny California for its TV début.
Eachus and team cocaptain Jamie Tabanao flew out for the week to be with the car during taping. “It was a fun experience,” says Tabanao, now in his first year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. “I got to meet Tommy Lee and Ludacris. That was really cool. They were asking me a lot of questions. One of them was, ‘Is this really safe?’ ”
TV junkies may be shocked to learn that “reality TV is not really reality,” according to Eachus. “Although they got in the cars and drove them a little, the celebrities did not actually compete.” It would have taken too long for the musicians to learn how to drive the cars: The brakes and other systems work differently than those in conventional vehicles, and the cockpit space is too small to comfortably accommodate a person of average size. So Tabanao “raced” the car for Tommy Lee, “beating” Ludacris, who “drove” the Stanford car. “It’s funny that people look at things on reality TV as if that’s how they happen,” says Eachus. “We actually did the race about 20 times. The producers were like, ‘That was great! Let’s do it again!’ ”
The episode featuring the solar car challenge aired at the end of September. While the excitement over the car’s appearance on the show has now abated, the team still has plenty to look forward to. “We felt that we peaked in 2007, so now we are changing our direction,” says Eachus. “After all these years, people continue to ask us what good these types of cars are if they cannot be used as commuter vehicles. The kids get a little edgy about that. Now we hope to produce more widely accepted vehicles, so we are building smaller electric vehicles.”
Solar-powered cars are full-sized automobiles that take about two years — and a lot of money — for the team to build. (Eachus says it cost $60,000-$80,000 to complete the one used for the show.) Electric vehicles, on the other hand, are smaller, more affordable (average cost $5,000-$10,000), and can be built in about a year. Currently the team is working toward finishing a fully electric car in time for the Electrathon America races next summer.