Applied Materials’ Solar Car Smackdown puts the green in their holiday giving.

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

by Dale Morris, Member at the Office of Sustainability at Applied Materials

Celebrating our third year, the Applied Materials‘ solar car race is showing no signs of slowing down.  Affectionately called the Solar Car Smackdown, the race is organized by the employee resource group, the Austin GreenTeam, to raise funds for the Capital Area Food Bank. The event draws upon both the technically-trained and the curious-tinkerers, who do their best to design the right mix of wheels, gears, and chassis in combination with the standard-issue motor and solar panel. And it’s all to produce first-place speed.  While the event is geared toward raising money, for many teams the bragging rights are serious business.  Teams can be found huddled around whiteboards, scheming up their secret ideas that will hopefully place them ahead of the other teams.  With the solar car race, weather is a particular challenge, since it can significantly alter the car’s performance. How do you design for less-than-perfect sun or wind conditions?  If it is especially windy, additional weight can provide benefits.  During the Smackdown, teams must take those variables into consideration and be prepared to make race-day or even side-line adjustments to be most competitive.

To add to the fun of the race (and raise more money), ‘smack talk’ is encouraged.  The day before race-day, the cars are displayed in the cafeteria and employees are encouraged to place money toward their favorite design.  During the pre-race exhibition, team captains are able to size up the competition, and the gawking turns into an engineering boastfest about modifications made to improve their cars.  Certainly some new ideas are exchanged and last-minute adjustments are made.  More importantly, it raises awareness about the race and it raises cash, as employees vote for their favorite car with dollar bills.  The team that raises the most money collects not only their own money, but also half of the money from each of the other cars.   As the voting winds down, fundrasing tactics increase. Phone calls to other employees are made to encourage support.  Our final voter this year was our site engineering director who dropped in money for the car that he felt was technically superior. He also donated a few bucks to last year’s winner for a “job well done.”

The 120-ft race course is a straight, five-lane course divided by weighted fishing line.  The cars are attached to the fishing line to avoid runaway chaos.  This year teams can “buy” unlimited advantage — a $1 donation can get you a foot closer to the finish line.  Yes, you can pay to cheat, but it’s all for a good cause to provide meals for Central Texas families. Some teams have been collecting money for weeks in preparation for a big advantage in the race. So, technically the best design doesn’t always win. But, we do host a special, final race — the grudge match. It is based purely on technical merit: no advantages – just the fastest car wins.  And they win big. Bragging rights for an entire year. And the Food Bank wins big as well. All money is donated to the Food Bank and matched dollar-per-dollar by the Applied Materials Foundation as part of the company’s annual food drive.

As the sun sets on another successful solar car race, teams are already scheming, designing and planning on how they can build the fastest car for next year.

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