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Solar flair: Sun-powered cars pass through Golden Belt
Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering students Cameron Kokesh, left, Annemarie Dapoz and Daniella Vallejo, right, stop to chat as their solar-powered entry in The American Solar Challenge heads down K-156 toward Ft. Larned National Historic Site on Wednesday. The MIT team was participating against nine other colleges in the biennial road race features entries using solar-powered energy. - photo by Courtesy Photo by MIKE GILMORE

Golden Belt roadway travelers might have glimpsed a unique sight around the noon hour Wednesday. The blink-and-you-missed it opportunity included a caravan of college students as they raced their solar-powered vehicles through Kansas, road-rally style.

One person watching the cars go by a 10th Street business in Great Bend said they looked like a fleet of little space ships rolling down the highway.

Actually, the cars and drivers are participating in the 2021 American Solar Challenge on the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.

The challenge, taking place Aug. 3-7, follows the Santa Fe Trail from its beginning in Independence, Mo., to Las Vegas, N.M., in honor of its sponsor, the National Park Service, and the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail.

The biennial event has been inviting teams of college engineering students to put their best foot forward during even-numbered years for four decades. Beginning in 1990 as the Sunrayce, the ASC has expanded to include international entries, providing that they qualify.

Governed by the Innovators Educational Foundation, the ASC garnered the National Park Service as a primary sponsor in 2018. Competitors traveled the Oregon Trail from Omaha, Neb., to Bend, Ore. in July of that year.

Although the event has grown to include several categories, all entries have one thing in common – they must operate solely on solar-produced energy. The event was supposed to take place in 2020, but the pandemic intervened. With a race scheduled the summer of 2022, the ASC will be back on track.

On Wednesday, the race route took students through Great Bend and Larned around the noon hour, on their way to Garden City. As their entry headed toward Fort Larned National Historic Site down K-156, support squad team members from MIT had time for a quick chat while grabbing a snack at Casey’s in Larned.

After winning in 1995, MIT has finished second a number of times. The 40-member MIT team has high hopes for this year, however, noted team vice-captain Cameron Kokesh.

“The race itself lasts about a week, but there is a lot of work that goes into it,” Kokesh said. Kokesh, a junior in mechanical engineering from Rapid City S.D., is currently the team’s lead supervisor of aerodynamics and composites – engineer language for what the car looks like and how it is made. She hopes to advance to team captain for next year’s race. A&C team members serve as support-and-gear personnel during the race, with some serving as alternate drivers, Kokesh said.

“We put a lot of work into our car to get ready for last year, but the Covid cancelled everything,” Kokesh said. “We were supposed to be open for international competition this year, but Covid restrictions limited the race to just 10 cars from colleges in this country.”

“We placed second at the Formula Sun qualifier, so we think we have a pretty good shot, “ added Daniela Vallejo, a rising sophomore from Dallas. Vallejo is Kokesh’s second-in-command of A&C and will take Kohesh’s place as lead next year.

Vallejo explained that the Formula Sun is a track race, which is held annually. It becomes the ASC qualifier every other year. The inaugural qualifier was held in 2000 at Topeka’s Heartland Park. Heartland was supposed to be the site for the 2020 event, but after the cancellation will return there next year, Vallejo said.

Annamarie Dapoz, also a Team MIT A&C, is a senior from Los Angeles, Calif. In upperclassman fashion, she ended the interview. “Guys, we’ve got to get back on the road,” she noted, as entries from Illinois State, Kentucky and Georgia Tech approached the Larned city limits. “We’ve got to make Garden City before dark.”

Thursday morning, the MIT car was leading as the race approached the state line. Illinois was in second place, with the rest of the pack just outside of Deerfield. Those interested in following the race can log on to the website sponsored by IOSIX, at

A solar car taking part in the 2021 American Solar Challenge is pulled off on the side of the road near Chase Wednesday morning. Challenge participants are following the Santa Fe Trail. - photo by Rhonda Knudson