Updated: Feb 17, 2020
A lot of people just go through the motions. They do what other people expect of them and they believe what other people say. I fell into that rut my first two years of college. I didn't have anything I felt personally motivated by or anything really capturing my attention. That all changed in spring 2017.
I had just decided to finally cut ties with my half-hearted commitments when a reminder email happened to catch my eye (I ignored the first iteration a few weeks earlier). It said "build a practical solar car from scratch" and I immediately fell in love. It perfectly resonated with the guilt I had for my combustion vehicles, my responsibility to make a better future, and my itch for intelligent design and innovation. Combined with all of that, what pushed me over the edge was seeing the signature at the bottom of the email "Bryon Spells" and realizing that I went to high school with that guy. I was immediately committed.
The first meeting sealed my fate as Bryon pitched the idea deftly, appealing to how this club is more than a club. It makes a real world product and could lead to real world startup. Joining the team finally gave me the freedom I was starved for. I wanted to design and get involved everywhere I could, and SolarPack immediately trusted me to do that.
I took full advantage of that freedom and got involved in designing the power-train and drivetrain systems including the motor, transmission, and driveline as well as the suspension and steering. Because I cared so much about this idea and the team, I saw the need for organization and leadership so I started stepping up in organizing and coordinating. People started seeing me do work and trusting me, so I was voted as Powertrain Lead at the start of 2018.
Through the guidance of our legendary original advisor Dr. Pritchard and through closer contact with founder/Director Bryon and the rest of the leads, my knowledge base and confidence grew. That's what this team is all about and I really believed it. If I saw something needed to be done, I would get it done by any means necessary. I started juggling multiple projects with success and was seeing things really start to move. We were finalizing designs, ordering parts, and putting things together. It was amazing to see a physical component actualize out of our imaginations.
As other members depended on me, my confidence grew and I started the long journey to learn how to bring others to their full potential. I knew it was better to trust others with responsibility, but it's an age-old dilemma on when to delegate and when to do it yourself. Apparently I was doing something right when Bryon decided to step down as director, as I was elected in his place a few months after starting as a lead. I was so appreciative and ecstatic about the opportunity I had before me, as I never thought I would be in those shoes. I knew what I was getting into, but I had no idea of the magnitude of the journey I was about to take. Nothing really prepares you for that responsibility except for diving in.
My 1st priority as soon as I took the reigns was getting us to the American Solar Challenge, and we were right in the thick of it. All of our deadlines were due yesterday and there were more that we'd never even thought of. As a first-time team, we had no idea what it took and we had no seniority to tell us how it would be. No matter what, we set our sights as high as humanly possible and set to Grinding with a capital G.
For reference, we had about 2 months to go and had only a naked frame with some wires on it, unattached handmade body panels, and some scattered electrical components. But we soldiered on, attaching suspension, steering, receiving & wiring the battery packs, and making progress at an incredibly fast pace. Though we were moving forward, we were scared we wouldn't make it, but one thing settled it for certain. Our motor controller charged it's own casing and popped, due to wires rubbing off their insulation. It had blown it's IGBT's and along with it, our chances of making the race. We tried desperately to find an alternative solution, but the rarity of our power system made it near impossible for a team strapped for funds and time. In reality, even if that part went perfect, we had no idea how far away we would actually be from competing.
Throughout that time we worked so hard to achieve what seemed like defeat, and it was tough for a lot of people on the team. It made blurry our initial vision of changing the world through a car that defies conventional solar car team logic. On top of losing experienced members due to burnout, we also lost our beloved advisor. Add finding a new one (or 4) to the list of things to get the team on track. I set about the new year with a fury, hell-bent on seeing this team's dreams come true. I built a business team out of nothing, got a panel of advisors, recruited to a degree of nearly doubling our numbers, and made set timelines for each part of the team to accomplish what we needed to race in the World Solar Challenge in 2019. It looked like we were on the right path. Again, reality decided to step in.
It turns out I had bitten off more than I could chew, as my devotion to certain parts of the team left other parts neglected. Taking on so many projects had me underachieving in many areas. We got a wake-up call in December when nearly nothing we had set to accomplish had happened. We wanted to make new body panels, a new motor controller, and a new suspension design, but through inaction and red tape, neither of those were accomplished. On top of that, my closest counsel and workhorse on the team, Bryon, was leaving for a new chapter in life.
2019 set off continuing with a dreadful tone, as our action didn't pick up but we knew we were heading for the wrong course. I was forced to sacrifice anything that wouldn't help us immediately to get to the race. Our goals shrunk as well as our opportunities. It was such a shame to turn down many amazing events and outreach because our car didn't work and we had to focus. The support and interest there was unreal, and we're not going to forget any of it (we're going to go around doing some burnouts to make up for it).
With new plans in place, including going to the Formula Sun Grand Prix instead, we started pushing our build further and faster. The progress we made in the short time before FSGP was truly remarkable, I will never forget how much we accomplished in that period (mainly because I did not sleep, seriously). We came so close to fixing all our problems in time to get on the track, but sadly we didn't. Even while we were in Texas, we didn't stop grinding (it's all we know, thanks to a pep talk from our advisor). We buckled the frame in the trailer ride there and had a non-functional electrical system. We worked at a truck stop outside a McDonald's, we worked in the morning, at night, without tables or chairs (because we forgot them), and we had it all patched up by the end of the week. But spinning the motor on the car for the first time 30min before the end of the race wasn't enough for us to get on the track.
We went home dejected, but proud of our ability to work under pressure. What we needed to learn now was how to work ahead of time. As I graduated, I knew my time was coming to a close but I was more than happy to leave the team in the hands of Adam Lineberger who stepped in as the next Director.
Throughout all the ups and downs, I've never had an experien
ce like I've had on the team, and I'm not sure I ever will again. The amount I've learned and grown, as a person and as an engineer, is almost unfathomable. It was more than worthwhile and something I can say unequivocally changed my life for the better. I met some of my favorite people through my time at SolarPack. It taught me how to believe in something greater than myself and actually reach for it. Everyone deserves an opportunity like this and would be foolish not to take advantage of it.