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Solar cars make visit to county

UFO's invaded Covington County Sunday afternoon and Monday, but they weren't full of little green men, but instead, high school students from across the country.

The UFO's were actually cars - solar cars to be precise, and they were participating in the Dell-Winston Solar Car Challenge, a cross-country race from Round Rock, Texas to Cocoa Beach, Fla.

The race is more than a speed and endurance challenge, it's about teamwork and overcoming challenges according to Dr. Lehman Marks, race director and sponsor of team from The Winston School in Dallas, Texas.

"We do this race to try and encourage kids to enter careers in science and engineering," Marks said during the race's overnight stop at the Comfort Inn in Andalusia. "It's about working together, learning teamwork, and overcoming obstacles."

Marks added it teaches the students one more very important lesson.

"A race like this teaches the kids dedication," he said. "They have to work on their car for several months, raising the money to build it, design - all aspects. They learn they have to be dedicated in order to get it done."

For some of the teams, building the car and then racing it isn't about winning, but more about teaching.

Keith Reese, sponsor of the Sundancer car from the Houston Vocational Center in Houston, Miss., said the learning experience is one of the things that makes the race so special.

"The challenge is to push our students as hard as we can," Reese said. "It is a great project for students to be involved in. It teaches math and science skills, but it also teaches them teamwork, social skills, discipline and leadership.

"The kids learn a lot of life lessons during a race. You see a lot of defining moments in a student's life during a race like this. Many of them blossom on an adventure like this, and that's what makes solar car racing so great."

When the cars breaked for the night in Andalusia, the Houston team was in the lead, but as Reese pointed out, things can change instantly.

"Right now, we are in the lead, and with continued good luck, we can maintain it, but you never know what could happen on the road, or when the weather could turn bad on you," he said. "Whoever comes out on top, comes out on top. It's not just about winning."

That sentiment was shared by another team, one with an international flavor.

"This has been a great experience," said Alejandro Martinez Rios, sponsor of the Apache team from Escuela Preparatoria Federal Diurna El Chamizal in Juarez, Mexico. "We've been working hard all year, and just taking the race is a prize for the team. Learning how to solve problems along the race route, meeting lots of new people, and seeing the students grow - it's all part of a wonderful experience."

The students on the team from Mexico range in age from 15 to 18, and have had their share of excitement thus far in the race.

"We won the fourth day," Rios said. "The kids were very excited to have won a day, and that pumped them up for the rest of the race."

For Abraham Ramos, 17, the race has been a great learning experience.

"This is my second race, and I've enjoyed the trip," he said. "Meeting new people and being with my friends has made it easier to be away from my family in Mexico. I've also enjoyed learning about the other cars."

Luis Carlos, 18, agreed with Ramos.

"It's my second race too, and I've enjoyed the trip," Luis said. "I like learning how to fix the problems that come up in the race and the driving. It's a little squeezed in the car, but it's all part of the race."

For both boys, the race has had some new adventures, especially their trip through Mississippi and Alabama.

"I really like the moss hanging from the trees," Abraham said. "It was really pretty in Natchez, Miss., and the hills and forests through here have been very pretty."

For Luis, the wildlife has been an interesting part of the trip.

"The animals that are on the side of the road with their legs up - armadillos - and the big black birds that won't get out of your way on the road, those have been interesting," he said.

What Luis was referring to were buzzards, one of which he had a close encounter with while he was driving.

"This big black bird just wouldn't get out of the way," Luis said. "It wasn't afraid of anything."

As for the race through Covington County, the teams departed the Comfort Inn in Andalusia on staggered time schedules beginning at 9 a.m., and drove U.S. Hwy. 84 to Opp, before turning south of U.S. 331. Once the teams arrived in Florala, they had a mandatory 15 minute rest stop at the Piggly Wiggly, where several of the teams got a good look at Lake Jackson before motoring on to Marianna, Fla. for the night.

Of course, with the cars being solar-powered, the weather plays a vital role in the speed and capabilities of each vehicle, as was evident as the cars began arriving in Florala Monday around 10:30 a.m., and a thunderstorm approached.

"You're at the mercy of the weather sometimes," said Reese. "If it's raining or cloudy, you can't recharge your car, and in you don't want to be in these cars when it's lightning."

Fortunately, the rains held off long enough for the cars from Houston, Columbus, Ind., and New York to depart Florala, but Colorado and Mexico got caught in the storm, before reaching Florala. Colorado decided to load their car into its trailer and drive to the rest stop, sacrificing just a few miles in penalties, while Mexico opted to try and wait out the storm at the rest area on U.S. 331.