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Solar car chases checkered flag at Indy

A University of New Mexico engineering team unveils the Lobo del Sol solar car just in time for the Formula Sun Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Lobo del Sol solar car
One of these things just ain't like the other. Amanda Kooser/CNET

It's race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You can almost feel the rumble of the engines and hear the whine of fine-tuned race cars whipping around the curves. Here they come! A small herd of flat fish pull quietly up to the track. These aren't your usual racers. They are participants in the Formula Sun Grand Prix, part of the American Solar Challenge for solar-powered cars.

The track racing event begins on May 2 and continues through May 7, but I'm standing outside an engineering building in Albuquerque at the send-off for the University of New Mexico team. The fire-engine-red car is swarmed by media members and well-wishers who can't take their eyes off the futuristic-looking design.

under the hood of the solar car
This is what a solar car looks like naked. Amanda Kooser/CNET

It took 15 electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering students about eight months to put this creation together. It's called the Lobo del Sol, which translates to Sun Wolf.

The three-wheel car is powered by an electric motor culled from a scooter. The body is crafted from Nomex, a lightweight material that's also used in race car driver fire suits.

The chassis is all hand-made. Small square solar panels donated by Schott Solar look like they've been sewn onto the surface into a big, high-tech quilt.

A peek under the hood shows a series of batteries and a bare-bones cockpit. You won't find air conditioning and an iPod connection on this car. Team member Jesse Whitehead estimates that the Lobo del Sol could reach up to 60 mph, but the team won't know for sure until it gets to Indy and unleashes the red monster on the track. The competition will include up to a dozen solar cars.

Related links
• UM solar car tops out at 105 mph
• Solar-powered car disguises itself as shrub
• Michigan takes first place at the 2010 American Solar Challenge

You won't see solar-powered cars being sold out of Toyota dealerships anytime soon, but they give a glimpse into a future where electric cars might not require an electric outlet. Driving a prototype like the Lobo del Sol means having to sacrifice some luxuries like a trunk, windshield wipers, air bags, and a passenger seat. It won't beat an IndyCar to the checkered flag, but it will use a heck of a lot less fuel in getting there.

the team and the solar car
The UNM team poses with the Lobo del Sol. Amanda Kooser/CNET