Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Meaning of Solar Car

The 2007 University of Michigan Solar Car Team race crew ended up as a remarkably accomplished wave of new students. It included students ranging from Mechanical to Aerospace to IOE to LSA to the School of Education. Each one of us had traded a career of accomplishment to vest themselves in the same altruism that was felt by Solar Car Alumni years ago. I for one stared wide-eyed into a life that would change me as much as it had changed the Solar Car Team members before me.

This was the University of Michigan Solar Car Team, Project: Continuum. There would be nothing else like it on or off campus and I knew that after my time on the Solar Car Team, I would be like nothing else on or off campus. The only thing that the Solar Car Team promised me and everyone on Race Crew is that we'd get the opportunity to prove ourselves. Indeed, most of us did. I for one scrambled to define my role on the team. I knew that Michigan Race Crew Alumni could teach a monkey to build the entire car; what they wanted instead, was someone strong and smart enough to know when to push the car farther and when to back off. Race Crew members are not mindless workers facing a generic race. This was a race that demanded the heart of every team and this was a team that runs on the business of discipline and dedication. The Solar Car Team wanted everything from me and I must admit that there were points in time when I felt everything was too much. I knew though, I had volunteered for this job and I could quit anytime I liked. But that would accomplish nothing.

As time went past, the true meaning of Solar Car Team surfaced. It didn't simply stand for Solar Car Team. It stood for Strength, Courage, and Teamwork. Strength to hold on not only as an individual but also as a team through the best and the worst, Courage to redefine and push the limits of solar car racing with every passing year and Teamwork to accomplish any task, any problem as a team and knowing that we would succeed and fail only as a team and nothing less. Soon for all of us on Race Crew, “Solar Car Team” slowly became our first, middle and last name.

As a team we grew, but a team isn’t built overnight. There were times when we all sat in a classroom at a mandatory meeting to discuss our feelings. I waited for someone to fire up the warm soapy tub and start singing "kumbaya". Never happened. Sitting in a circle, I knew the sentiment seemed common. Even though some of us stood on the edge of self implosion, it seemed to be no one else's business. But I was wrong. It was. As a team we came to know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes better than anyone else on earth. We knew things girlfriends, boyfriends, dads and moms will never think to ask, see things that no one else would ever understand and bare things no one else would want to see. Words like brother and sister came out because in many ways, we work on a level of trust few people ever know. We succeeded because of our trust in each other: 23 hands with one heart. Work together and live. Fragment and die. The rules are so elegantly simple. These rules would be understood soon enough for all of us.

The overwhelming sense of loss we felt is difficult to explain even now. We as a team hadn't known a whole lot of failure, yet that moment, that image still engraved in our minds, made the whole two years seem like a waste. It gripped us as the single greatest mistake of our life. Just being there. For an entire summer, we focused all our energy on building and preparing to race the best solar car the world would see. We also invested ourselves into the process of developing the best team that ever assembled. Then within the course of 5 minutes, it all went away. All the work. All the sacrifice. All the prayers. My mind flipped back through every lesson the Solar Car Team had taught me, from the first hand experiences, to Solar Car Alumni instructions to the Solar Car Team's motto: "Go fast, go smooth, go blue".

I now understand that what happened at the World Solar Challenge will weigh on me a little longer than I had originally thought. During my lifetime at Australia, I'd strolled the years of my life, guessing, believing, regretting, hoping. I'd read books, written documents, watched movies, consumed who knows how many gallons of water, all in hope of getting home with my head in one piece. My dreams replayed the sound of terror raging through; faces appeared as a slow parade. I woke up and laid there with a wrenching sadness in my stomach. All I wanted at that moment was to run back in time.

A few days later, I took a stroll out in the nearby hills of my hometown, Fremont. The place begged me to return to Australia Nothing pleased me. I realized then that I could go anywhere and do anything I wanted, but it would not make much of a difference. There's no place I haven't already been. Right then, I knew what lay ahead. What I had to do. No sorry, what WE as a team needed to do. We as a team couldn't fall. Falling down wouldn't help. Lots of other people depended on us. Each and every one of us could run as far as we wanted, regretting, hoping, as I’ve done in the hills, but the real destination lay inside us. The voices in us that reminded us of the World Solar Challenge and what happened. As long as we live, they will be with us.

I spent the next few hours on the plane back to Michigan remembering what I was taught about in standing up to the consequences of failure and watching my days in Australia flash in front of me in less time it took for me to compose this. In that moment, I remembered what it was that made me and probably everyone else on Race Crew join the Solar Car Team to begin with—A challenge, A cause. We didn’t join for a grade, for money or for anything else. For most, Solar Car had very little to do with our future lives: lawyer, biomedical engineer, artist, school administrator. If that cause is not meaningful enough to withstand the test of a couple falls, then it isn't worth investing our lives in. You can't just give up and die the first time someone knocks you down. Right then, I realized how I’d lost myself. It didn’t really have much to do with Australia, the World Solar Challenge, or my summer in Ann Arbor. It had to do with me. I'd stood too long in the Solar Car Team’s model of excellence. Selection bred it. Race Crew grew it. Months on the team made it part of my inner self. But it’s just a myth. Sometimes the strongest men and women fail, even with the best intentions. There were many gifts that have been given to Race Crew. One of them is weakness. Another is the ability to accept it.

I could remember the start at the World Solar Challenge—the countdown. It was just our Race Crew and the world. This moment. All the choices that we made thus far summarized in one immeasurable consequence. That quickly, it could be over. We breathe. Sometimes the most important decisions are the ones you don't make. My mind turned to Rogers, Brooke, Sarah, and all of Race Crew—All heroes in their own way. There's Rogers teaching a wide-eyed new kid on solar car how to wire up a GM vehicle without getting himself killed. There's Sarah, who dragged me back into a world that made sense every time I drifted away. There's Brooke, leading and showing me the way toward something new and better. And in every picture, someone pulls me deeper into the moment, a greater truth. I see my family waiting for me to come home. Their smiles raise me, no matter how difficult the scene or painful the recollection. They save me when I fall.

I'm a 20 year old. A two and half year member of the University of Michigan Solar Car Team. This is my 1st race on Race Crew. In some ways I feel like I’ve been training for this all my life. In some ways I feel like I have no idea what my next move is. No matter what happens, I know my team is behind me

You think about all the hundreds of tests run you've done, the hundreds of bolts you screwed in. The very first hour of the day to the last hour, we’ve worked. We practice until our hands go numb. Continuum is our pride and proof of our team’s success

The Sun is our fuel, our power and here, our entire universe boils down to a solar car and 25 human beings working in concert to run the best race with no error.

Keys in ignitions, array online, computers powered up, sunglasses on, gloves on, seat belts click. This was our time to shine; our time to show the world what it means to be a Michigan Wolverine, our time to prove our excellences.

And so it begins. Go Fast, Go Smooth,
Go Blue.

* * * *

Arriving back from the World Solar Challenge in Australia, I wanted to tone back on Solar Car and focus my life on academics, not that my Solar Car experiences were mediocre in anyway. There will be nothing in my life that would be on par with the experiences that the team has given me. More than a course, the team showed us that academics were necessary and at the same time that we were scratching the tip of the iceberg of what the real world entailed. It was the middle of January when there was talk of having an entirely new race crew assembled to race our car for the North American Solar Challenge. It was the same car that we placed our sweat and tears into from Ann Arbor to Australia, from the initial mold to the crash to the finish line.

We as a team came together and after much deliberation, we realized that even though most of us were done with solar racing, we simply were not finished with the team. Greater than just myself, the team had one more chance to prove to the world what Michigan was capable of. We all had unfinished business on the team and this would be the time to finish it. No one knew the car better than we did. No one knew each of the members of the race crew the way we knew each other’s strengths, weakness, likes, and dislikes. We succeeded, as a team in Australia, because of our trust in each other and we were going to show it once more.

I rejoined the team in charge, once again, of race crew and support vehicle outfitting and communication. Reunited, most of us, we set out to show the world what they missed in the World Solar Challenge. At the same time new members of Race Crew have joined us in our journey. I smile every time I see each and every one of them. In many ways, they were reflections of who we were a year ago and their enthusiasm reminds us of the many people, young and old, we inspire every single year. From long public relations events to a simple drive by, the amazement and joy we pass on is immeasurable on any scale. My every move everyday has changed because of how much I want to instill in their minds with the experiences that have been laid upon me ever since I started.

With each passing day, filled of hope and pride, we will continue to move forward together--no matter what. I know for me, it has been and still is a huge honor to have the opportunity to race alongside so many magnanimous students. For some of us, the journey is coming to a close, for most our journey has only begun. One team, one heart, one dream, one sun, one car.


-Richard Ho



Anonymous Sudeep said...

A very inspiring post Richard! A great way to tell the true meaning of the solar car team to new members, like myself. I can't wait for my chance to be on Race Crew!

Keep up with the posts, I love reading the updates!

July 10, 2008 at 1:40 AM  
Anonymous RoHo said...

Wow, such an inspirational message as this is leaning towards new members to know that such sayings always lead to great achievements. No matter the downfall or uprise to success, the reason why you withhold this place in solar car history is because of your determination to be one. I just want to tell the team that this has been a great experience following the UM Solar Car Team through their journey in learning experiences that only a team together would learn! Smooth sailing for future years and good luck for the North American Solar Car Challenge!!!

July 11, 2008 at 4:56 AM  
Anonymous The SEO Challenge said...

Hello, this sounds and looks like a great post. It helps a lot of us outside of your world to become inspired to do things our way and end up successful in any challenge we take in our physical and mental state.

July 13, 2008 at 8:13 AM  
Anonymous SEO said...

I want to drive one!!

December 18, 2008 at 4:16 PM  

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