Presidio High School students to compete in national Solar Car Challenge

PRESIDIO  — At last week’s edition of the Friday Bluebonnet Music Series, an unlikely attendant took the stage on the grounds of the farmers market: a work-in-progress solar car, built by students at Presidio High School. The students will be working on the car for the rest of the semester in hopes of taking home top prize at a national competition held July 12 in Fort Worth. 

The national Solar Car Challenge has roots all the way back to 1993, when the organization was formed to teach youngsters to “build and safely race roadworthy solar cars,” per their website. The first race was held in 2005 at the Texas Motor Speedway outside Fort Worth and has grown ever since. 

Teams from around the country will take their creations to the Speedway in July. Presidio’s team is the only active Texas team west of the Pecos, and will face competitors from as far away as Los Angeles, Detroit and Staten Island. 

Presidio High School Career and Technical Education Teacher Jesús Zubia has been leading the project for many years, and is helping a new crop of students bounce back from canceled events during the pandemic. Zubia is the only one on the team with experience —  all of the 12 students involved in the project are learning how to build their solar-powered race car for the first time. 

Their first challenge is choosing all their own materials. “Basically, the students build their own car from scratch,” he explained. “Weight is a big issue, so we choose materials that are less strain on the motor and less strain on the battery. They give us certain rules, but they don’t decide what batteries we use or anything like that.”

On race day, it’s not all about speed. “You don’t win by being the fastest one,” he said. “You win by which car is more efficient, and by which car covers the most mileage during the race.” 

After the cars are evaluated by a series of judges to make sure all the event regulations have been accounted for, the cars will start their journey around the track — the Texas Motor Speedway, the home of the annual NASCAR All-Star race. They’ll race all day and continue on for five days to test the cars’ endurance.

The high school students’ solar cars are quite a bit smaller than their high-speed counterparts. “Typically, they’re 3 or 4 feet wide and about 8 feet long,” Zubia explained. This year’s car was designed to be a little larger from previous years, to accommodate Zubia and a few of the taller students. 

The cars sport a canopy of solar panels on top. This year’s frame will be black, and the rest of the car will be in blue and white, Presidio Blue Devil colors. 

In addition to learning the mechanics of solar-powered cars and making a safe, road-worthy vehicle, the students will learn important problem-solving and team building skills. Inside the Texas Motor Speedway, temperatures can climb to 130 degrees, making it a physically challenging event as well. 

“We’re there as instructors, but we can’t help them beyond giving them advice,” Zubia explained. “Besides having an efficient car, you need to have a strong team where everybody’s communicating and everybody’s working. It’ll create a lot of stress, but at the same time, it will challenge them to move past all that and work together.” 

Once the car is finished enough to hit the road, Zubia hopes to host an exhibition day in town so the students can drive around town and show off their hard work. The car should be up and running by the end of April. 

“Ultimately, they’re learning a little bit as welders, programmers, electricians, mechanics,” he said. “But a lot of it is problem solving — being ready to find a solution for any problems that may come up.”