On July 23, 2003, a solar race team from North Dakota State University crossed the southern California finish line first in the Stock Class of the American Solar Challenge. The Fargo-based Sunsetters team triumphed over teams from schools more readily identified with the sun's rays, like the University of California at Berkeley and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The 10-day, 2300-mile American Solar Challenge took the NDSU students from Chicago to Los Angeles along historic Route 66 and is the longest solar car race in the world.
From an original starting field of 30 teams, five failed to pass the technical and safety inspection, and five failed to qualify by not reaching minimum performance levels, leaving a field of 20 teams. Teams participated in either the Open or Stock class of the race, which are roughly comparable to professional and amateur, respectively. Stock class vehicles are limited to conventional lead acid batteries which are about one-fourth the cost of lithium-ion batteries and conventional solar cells that may cost as little as $4000 per vehicle, compared to more than $125,000 for Open class solar cells.
The winning North Dakota State vehicle, named Prairie Fire GT, was unique as the only solar racer powered by an electric motor built by a conventional electric motor manufacturer, Bodine Electric Company of Chicago. All the other teams used electric motors specially built for solar racing, which cost as much as $17,000 each. The Bodine Electric e-TORQ™ motor is a patented high torque industrial servomotor, typically used in packaging machinery and medical equipment. The 14-in. diameter e-TORQ motor used by the Sunsetters produces about 10 hp with greater than 90% energy efficiency at a fraction of the cost of specially built solar vehicle motors.
"The e-TORQ motor was the envy of the race. It lived up to the Bodine 'Quality in Motion' slogan," said Ryan Schumacher, spokesperson for the NDSU Sunsetters team. The North Dakota State team improved from its fourth place showing in the 2001 race and plans are already underway for the 2004 Solar Challenge.