It's race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You can almost feel the rumble of the engines and hear the whine of fine-tuned race cars whipping around the curves. Here they come! A small herd of flat fish pull quietly up to the track. These aren't your usual racers. They are participants in the Formula Sun Grand Prix, part of the American Solar Challenge for solar-powered cars.
The track racing event begins on May 2 and continues through May 7, but I'm standing outside an engineering building in Albuquerque at the send-off for the University of New Mexico team. The fire-engine-red car is swarmed by media members and well-wishers who can't take their eyes off the futuristic-looking design.
It took 15 electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering students about eight months to put this creation together. It's called the Lobo del Sol, which translates to Sun Wolf.
The three-wheel car is powered by an electric motor culled from a scooter. The body is crafted from Nomex, a lightweight material that's also used in race car driver fire suits.
The chassis is all hand-made. Small square solar panels donated by Schott Solar look like they've been sewn onto the surface into a big, high-tech quilt.
A peek under the hood shows a series of batteries and a bare-bones cockpit. You won't find air conditioning and an iPod connection on this car. Team member Jesse Whitehead estimates that the Lobo del Sol could reach up to 60 mph, but the team won't know for sure until it gets to Indy and unleashes the red monster on the track. The competition will include up to a dozen solar cars.
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You won't see solar-powered cars being sold out of Toyota dealerships anytime soon, but they give a glimpse into a future where electric cars might not require an electric outlet. Driving a prototype like the Lobo del Sol means having to sacrifice some luxuries like a trunk, windshield wipers, air bags, and a passenger seat. It won't beat an IndyCar to the checkered flag, but it will use a heck of a lot less fuel in getting there.