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Formula One Racing? Try Formula Sun

Alan Lytle
University of Kentucky students show off the Gato Del Sol V, one of two sun-powered vehicles set for competition this year. The car was on display during See Blue orientation on campus on June 21, 2017.

University of Kentucky engineering students are showing off their latest solar-powered racing cars ahead of an international competition in Austin, Texas in early July.

When you think of formula racing, you probably envision powerful, noisy gas-guzzlers leaving a trail of fumes in their wake.

And while racing has made moves in a more green direction in recent years, it’s got nothing on the solar vehicles developed at the UK College of Engineering. Students revived the school's flagging Kentucky Racing club with the goal of crafting the lightest, most energy-efficient racers.

Kyle Cravens is part of the team that produced the fifth incarnation of the Gato Del Sol, or "Cat of the Sun."

"Our battery pack holds the amount of energy it takes to run a hairdryer for about five hours. That's what we can go about 100 miles on, and the rest of it we get from the sun," he explains.

And it looks like something that just zipped out of an episode of The Jetsons.

"You can imagine kind of a wing, if you will. It's a long body with a pod-shaped top and you can't really see much other than the fairings that kind of cover the two wheels on the side," Cravens describes.

Don't expect to match the high-adrenaline speeds of typical race cars, though. Students have clocked their latest creation at 73 miles per hour, with an estimated maximum speed of about 90. It may not qualify for the Indianapolis 500 just yet, but Cravens says the Gato holds the record speed at the upcoming Texas contest. 

In a couple of weeks, the vehicle will compete in the Formula Sun Grand Prix, a solar challenge that draws between 15 and 20 entries from around the globe. But preparation for the 3-day event takes two years of designing, building, and testing.

"It's quite a challenge. We're trying to harness the energy of the sun as we go and use that to move in the most efficient way we can," Cravens says.

Right now, the car is taking it easy – sitting on display during UK’s See Blue orientation as engineering students hope to attract newcomers with a need for sustainable speed.

Watch the Gato Del Sol V reach 70 MPH.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.