It's not near-sighted kangaroos or the hot desert sun that worries students from the University of Maryland as they prepare to race their solar car, the Pride of Maryland, through the Australian outback beginning this weekend.
The concern is "road trains," huge trucks pulling four or more trailers along the 1,900 miles of highway between Darwin and Adelaide and creating vicious crosswinds when they roar by that can upset lightweight vehicles like the sleek, fragile College Park car.
"We designed for it, we think, but not everybody did," said Craig Hampson, 20, a junior in mechanical engineering who is now with his teammates in Australia awaiting the starting gun. "There are some friendly wagers about who's going to get blown off the road."
The Pride of Maryland is among 41 entries -- from the United States, Canada, Japan, Europe, Australia and New Zealand -- in the second World Solar Challenge, set to begin Sunday in Darwin and to traverse the arid, sparsely populated outback, ending some six days later in Adelaide.
An advance party of the students and their faculty adviser, mechanical engineering professor Dave Holloway, flew with the car to Melbourne two weeks ago and drove north along the route of the Stuart Highway, the historic road that vertically bisects the continent.
And the full 21-member Maryland group will be joined this week in Darwin by visitors from home: Diamondback photojournalist Scott Suchman, 22, who will document the race for the school's newspaper, and Alvina and Larry Long, whose sons Larry Jr. and Tim are on the team.
"I think the enthusiasm of the kids rubbed off on us," said Mr. Long, a Bethesda stockbroker, who added that he and his wife would prepare meals during the race. "We have six kids. We're used to cooking for crowds."
It was three years ago that the first solar-car race through Australia was won by General Motors Corp.'s futuristic Sunraycer with a 2 1/2 -day margin. Last July, GM sponsored a 1,640-mile race from Orlando, Fla., to the company's technical center in Michigan.
The Maryland car finished third among 32 university entries, completing the course in just over 80 hours. That showing earned the Maryland team and the top two winners -- the University of Michigan and Western Washington University -- free GM sponsorship to Australia.
"We learned a lot of lessons, and that will be an advantage," said Mr. Hampson, one of the drivers during the U.S. race. "There are only 10 other teams that have raced their cars and know how grueling it can be." General Motors is not competing this time.
Since July, the student engineers who built the car have improved its aerodynamics and pared away 30 pounds. The 20-foot-long car now weighs 383 pounds, and its sophisticated solar cells -- donated by Solarex Corp. in Frederick -- can power it to almost 45 miles an hour "at high noon, on a clear day, without wind or road trains," said team member Joe Mashinski, 25.
It's late spring in Australia, very dry, very hot, with daytime temperatures as high as 120 degrees in the outback.
The race day is nine hours long, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with crucial charging of batteries in early morning as soon as the sun rises and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Australian time is 14 1/2 hours later than Eastern Standard Time, so the race actually begins late Saturday afternoon our time.
That schedule won't permit much "Waltzing Mathilda" around a jolly fire, although the team, including two female engineering students, will camp in tents and vans.
The Maryland caravan of six vehicles includes two scout cars carrying a student meteorologist to analyze the weather and eagle-eyed spotters to warn of road trains, wandering cows and the positions of competitors.
Knowing where the others are just makes sense to a team like Maryland's that fully intends to win against formidable competitors such as Honda and Mazda, Japanese automakers that will field sophisticated entries as part of research programs into solar vehicle technology.
"This is a serious international competition, not a bunch of college kids playing around. It's a big investment of time and money," said Mr. Hampson, who estimated that the University of Maryland project had cost $400,000, largely paid for by donations from some 50 companies.
"Nobody's going to win by 2 1/2 days this time, believe me," he added. "We're talking cars finishing within hours of each other, which is amazing over 1,900 miles."