OREGON COUNTY -- On the morning of July 13 20 odd-shaped cars lined up in front of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. At 9 a.m. the American Solar Challenge began as Kansas State University's car left the starting line. In the chase vehicle that followed KSU rode Riverton resident Don Horton.
Horton was an official observer in the 10-day, 2,300-mile solar car race that followed historic Route 66 from Chicago to Claremont, Calif. As an observer Horton's responsibilities included objectively recording the car's performance, from speed to any traffic violation and removing/securing the car's battery pack at the end of each racing day. "We were the equalizers of the race teams and the eyes and ears of the race officials," he said.
At each race checkpoint, about 200 miles apart, observers turned in their notes and were assigned to new racing teams. Race days began at 8 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m. If cars didn't make it to the designated stopping point, the team stopped where they were, the observer marked the spot with spray paint and, if lucky, the team found lodging. Horton, who has been an observer since 1993, said he's slept under the stars many times.
The University of Missouri-Rolla won this year's race with a record elapsed time of 51 hours, 47 minutes. Each race car, built by college and university teams, was powered only by the sun's energy. Horton said, "It's amazing; they're running 2,300 miles on the power equal to a blow dryer."
One question that comes up when talking about solar racing is, "What happens on a rainy or cloudy day?" Horton explained that the solar panels, or array, on the body of the car can, if efficient, drive the car's motor and charge the battery storage pack. "It's just a matter of strategy," he said.
Horton said he enjoys being involved with solar racing. "It's like a two-week vacation with small pay. It's an adventure: you get to see the country, you get to see the product of extremely bright students and you get to see the future."
And as they traveled across the country he got to see the look of surprise and astonishment as the cars that "look like little space ships" drove through small towns and along the highway. "Kodak made many moments," he said.
With his years of experience as an observer, Horton has been invited to be an observer in the World Solar Challenge in Australia this fall. "I'll be there, if I can afford to get there," he said.