When people meet members of Principia's solar car team, they don't believe they're really from the tiny college in Elsah.
"Everybody thinks we're from Boeing," said Joe Ritter, one of the faculty advisers for the team.
The confusion could have something to do with the fact that the college has only 500 students. Most of the other schools competing have more engineering students than that.
It also could be their $120,000 budget, which is a fraction of the millions some of the top teams have.
Principia is not new to solar car races, though. The liberal arts college for Christian Scientists has been competing since 1995. The students had some success, finishing second in the North American Solar Challenge in 2008 and seventh in the World Solar Challenge in 2009.
They recently competed again in the world race, a weeklong contest through the middle of the Australian outback. Their showing this time was 26th out of 36 teams after rain forced them to tow their car part of the way.
The team had other challenges. A brush fire delayed them four hours, and changes in vehicle specifications, including tires, hurt their time.
Lacey Crabill, a biology major at Principia, was a backup driver. She usually sits behind the wheel of a 2003 Acura, but she got interested in solar car racing after her brother participated on the team. She's been a member for three years.
"Before I joined, I knew nothing about solar cars, and now I know quite a bit about how they work," she said.
During the recent race, Crabill, who hails from Lodi, Calif., blogged about the team's progress and rode in one of the vehicles supporting their car.
The main driver was Justin Sinichko, who graduated from Principia last year and lives in New Orleans now. Because the car's goal is energy efficiency, it had no air conditioning, and the conditions got quite toasty behind the wheel.
"The only air was through a small opening that hit me in the forehead," he said.
The car, Ra7s, is named in part for the sun god Ra. It's a little less than 6 feet wide and about 17 feet long. Its body is made of carbon fiber. The driver's seat is about two inches from the ground and in a semi-reclined position. The driver communicates with support vehicles through a headset.
Sinichko said he relied heavily on his teammates to keep him alert and informed about other vehicles, like road trains, which are three tractor-trailer lengths long.
The winning team was from Japan. Its car had a top speed of 99 mph, which is impressive considering these vehicles run on the amount of energy used to power a toaster.
Principia's car topped out at about 47 mph. Its speed was hindered mostly by its new tires, a type commonly used by mopeds, which have a thicker tread. They were unable to find better tires to meet the new specifications.
The team started in Darwin, Australia, and finished about 1,800 miles down the two-lane Stuart Highway in Adelaide. Teams had to make seven control stops — half-hour breaks where they could charge their vehicle or change drivers — and they had to stop daily at 5 p.m.
That required them to camp out along the highway in the middle of the wilderness, where they always were on the lookout for dingoes. They ate meals grilled by their team, but they also got to sample local cuisine, like emu and Tim Tams, Australian chocolate biscuits.
At one of the control stops, they came to the rescue of a team from the Philippines after a battery fire threatened to destroy their car. Principia helped them extinguish it and another team lent the Filipinos a spare battery pack so they could finish the race.
"It does get competitive, but it's not just about winning," Crabill said.
Steve Shedd, another faculty adviser, said this year's team is the youngest they've had, but members did learn to rely on one another during the race.
And that, he said, is the real goal of the program.
"After they graduate, they'll get a job at some company where they're supposed to be a member of a team," he said. "This is one of those hands-on projects that teaches them how to lead, how to follow and how to communicate."