For those of you who have been following solar car racing in North America for some time, the 2021 cross-country event marks a big departure from the way previous events have been run all the way back to the very first GM Sunrayce in 1990. Up to this point, team performance in the event has always been ranked by the shortest official elapsed time to complete a fixed distance along a prescribed route with penalties traditionally getting assessed against a team’s elapsed time. While this generally seems like a logical scoring approach for a cross-country competition, over the years we’ve consistently struggled with making the event attainable for slower teams while keeping it challenging for the fastest teams and fairly assessing time based penalties against teams who have to trailer their solar car for a portion of the event.
In the 2018 American Solar Challenge, an effort was made to improve the fairness of penalizing trailering teams by ranking them on total official distance instead of official elapsed time. An issue we observed with this approach is that once a team had to trailer for any reason they lost the incentive to continue driving fast and instead just needed to try to avoid trailering again. This generally resulted in these teams driving rather slowly and conservatively, which could prove particularly problematic in an event where most teams end up being forced to trailer due to poor weather conditions that are out of everyone’s control.
In solar car competitions around the world there always seems to be a rather large discrepancy in the performance of the highest to lowest ranked team at any given event. Historically for the staged format of North American events this has resulted in the faster teams spending a lot of time sitting and waiting at stage stop locations for the rest of the teams to arrive. With the 2021 event we are making some significant changes that will hopefully make the event more challenging for the highest performing teams and more interesting for the general public, while still keeping the event within reach for the slower teams to complete.
For the first time, the 2021 American Solar Challenge is being ranked by official distance completed from highest to lowest with ties going to the team that drove the distance in the lower official elapsed time. In order to enable this format, there will be a base route which should be relatively easy for all teams to complete assuming typical summer weather. We will maintain the staged format of the event with pre-determined stage stop locations throughout the route where all teams will regroup. At various checkpoints and stage stops throughout the event, teams will have the option to drive loops to increase their distance travelled. All penalties will now be assessed in miles instead of elapsed time. This event format will generate a lot more solar car action where loops are taking place which should be welcome news for public spectators trying to observe the vehicles. As with the 2018 event, the Multi-Occupant Vehicle class vehicles are ranked by a scoring formula that includes multiple factors besides official distance but still these teams will have access to the optional loops to increase their distance travelled. For more detailed information about the 2021 distance based event operations, take a look at Section 12 in the latest release of the Regulations.
The 2021 distance based event format does add some new complexities for our timing and scoring officials but we are optimistic that it will make for an exciting event that is equally challenging for both slow and fast teams. It should keep the more fair ranking system for trailering teams adopted in 2018 without removing the incentive for trailering teams to keep driving as fast as they can during the rest of the event. For spectators looking to maximize the number of solar cars they get to see driving we would recommend finding a good viewing location along a section of the route that overlaps with a loop (that way you’d get to see teams running the base route as well as running the loop). Solar car events can be weather dependent so it is advisable to check the GPS tracking data for teams that will be live during the event to help get a sense of where teams are. If you want to get a chance to see the cars up close and talk to team members/event staff, the stage stops and checkpoints are all open to the public. You can find more details about the 2021 route by downloading the Route Book from the Event page.