It Happened at Michigan — Powered by the sun


When the student-driven Solar Car Team and its car, Sunrunner, won the first Sunrayce USA in 1990, it propelled a legacy of leadership in competitive vehicles fueled by the sun.

More than 100 U-M students collaborated to design, test, and build Sunrunner, with much of the work taking place on North Campus. While most students were from the College of Engineering, the team attracted others studying business, art, law, and the environment.

A photo of a solar-powered car and college students
Members of the 1990 solar car team with their winning vehicle. (Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

The 1,641-mile race route stretched from Epcot Center in Florida to the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, just north of Detroit. General Motors sponsored the car race. Thirty-two college teams from the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico entered their solar vehicles in the first-ever race.

Standing slightly more than 4 feet high, 6 feet wide, and stretching nearly 20 feet long, Sunrunner had room for one driver. It typically traveled 35 mph.

Fourteen thousand solar cells attached to the car’s body captured energy used to power Sunrunner.

After finishing fifth on the first day of racing, U-M finished no lower than fourth for the remaining 10 days of the race. With each day, Sunrunner cumulatively gained time on its competitors; when it crossed the finish line on July 19, it was 80 minutes ahead of the second-place team from Western Washington University.

A photo of the Sunrunner solar-powered car crossing the finish line
Sunrunner crosses the finish line before 5,000 race fans at the GM Technical Center in 1990. (Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

“We’re finally, finally here. It feels good,” said team member Paula Finnegan, who was behind the wheel. “Coming across the finish line, knowing that it doesn’t matter if we blow a tire, if doesn’t matter if we blow another chain, we’re here, and we came in first.”

The victory qualified Sunrunner for the World Solar Challenge, where it finished third.

Sunrayce is now known as the American Solar Challenge, which U-M students have won nine times, along with seven international titles.

Sunrunner is on display at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn. The Michigan Solar Car Team’s latest vehicle, Astrum, will compete for the first time in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. The 1,800-mile race across Australia begins Oct. 22.


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