The crowd watched as the car seesawed its way between the traffic cones. A few gasped when one cone got stuck on the car’s bumper, and sighed with relief when the driver managed to pull away without knocking it over. And when the vehicle finally settled squarely between the cones, there was a round of applause.

During the 2018 American Solar Challenge, even something as mundane as parallel parking can be a spectator sport.

Fourteen solar-powered vehicles took off from Lewis and Clark Landing on the Missouri River on Saturday morning, beginning a 10-day, 1,700-plus-mile race that roughly follows the route of the historic Oregon Trail.

A crowd of almost 100 watched from the downtown riverfront as the cars began their journey from Omaha to Bend, Oregon. The cars were built by teams of college students from the U.S. and abroad to show off solar technology and engineering skills learned in class.

For both the students and the event’s co-sponsors, the National Park Service and the Innovators Educational Foundation, the start of the race marked the culmination of a longer one.

“It takes about two years to plan everything, from figuring out the route to checkpoint preparations,” said Gail Lueck, the event director.

On Saturday afternoon, the teams that had left Omaha earlier staggered into their first 45-minute checkpoint in Grand Island. There, the teams charged their vehicles’ batteries and worked on any other mechanical issues.

The team from the University of Michigan was the first to reach the Grand Island pit stop, with Western Sydney University of Australia behind it. Iowa State University fielded the lone team from Iowa, and there were none from Nebraska.

Each team will drive the route of the Oregon Trail in convoys of three: the solar cars, a lead or scout car and a “chase” car following close behind the solar ones to protect them from traffic.

For some of the vehicles, especially the smaller “racers,” which are judged solely on speed and therefore smaller than the practically oriented “cruisers,” that protection can be important.

Elizabeth Li, a junior from the University of California, will drive her team’s small “racer” car along with one other driver. Li said she was picked to drive mainly because, at 5-foot-3, she can actually fit in the cramped driver’s compartment.

Not all the cars are as uncomfortable as Team SolCal’s racer. To compete in the “cruiser” class, the engineers from the University of Minnesota had to build a solar car that could make it all the way to Oregon as efficiently as possible while carrying as many passengers as possible.

“Ours is less about how fast we can get there and more about how can we build something that people would want to buy?” said Ben Gallup, a senior at Minnesota.

Whether the teams are driving the smaller, faster racers or the bigger, more practical cruisers all the way to Oregon, all share an innovative spirit worthy of the trail they will follow, said Carole Wendler, chief of interpretation for the Oregon National Historic Trail, which is overseen by the National Park Service.

The trail, which starts in Independence, Missouri, and goes through Omaha on its way to Oregon City, was the route pioneers took across the country in the 1800s to reach the valleys of Oregon.

“The immigrants on the trail were in a lot of ways pioneers and innovators who took risks to make that trip,” Wendler said. “Today’s teams are innovators who are also taking risks of a different kind to make the same trip.”

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