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Don't expect the Indianapolis 500 if you're coming to Solar Splash 2001 on Hoyt Lake this weekend.

Contestants in "the eighth annual world championship solar-powered boat regatta," as it is billed, are mostly fresh-scrubbed college engineering students steering modified racing shells or canoes that can travel no faster than 30 mph.

Energy efficiency -- not gas-guzzling speed -- is the moving force here, said Doug Peters of Advanced Ecology Competition in Flagstaff, Ariz., which organized the contest. And to anyone interested in saving energy, he added, "solar boats and electric boats make a lot of sense."

That said, the competition will be like most any other: fierce.

Sixteen teams from college campuses as far away as California and Quebec -- Japan and Taiwan were late scratches -- have worked year-round to design the craft that they hope will take home top honors after the sprint championships end shortly before 3 p.m. Sunday.

Joining the collegians will be crews from the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and the Park School of Baltimore.

Some are counting on novelty to give them the winning edge. Take the University of California at Santa Barbara crew, which spent Wednesday morning in the pit area -- a tent near the Delaware Park Rose Garden -- uncrating its secret weapon: a solar-powered catamaran.

"We wanted to do something different," said Donovan Fink, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. "The first thing we decided was we didn't want to build a hydrofoil. We wanted something more stable."

The Santa Barbara splashers settled on a lightweight twin hull made of fiberglass-covered Styrofoam and held together by piping. A drive shaft runs down the middle to the aft propeller. Solar panels are spread out between the hulls, where a catamaran's canvas deck normally would be.

The panels "don't do too much as far as charging goes, but they give you a little bit of juice," said Fink, who expects to pilot the craft because, at 135 pounds, he is the lightest of the five students who flew here from California. "We're hoping to win the sprints. That's the activity where we excel."

Or at least should excel, if the new drive shaft holds up. The original broke during the craft's first and only test in a lagoon near the Santa Barbara campus.

Donovan's dismissal of hydrofoils is certain to fire up the Marquette University team, which transported its 'foil from Milwaukee in a logo-emblazoned trailer straight out of a NASCAR promotional video. Spectators will see Marquette's craft lift completely out of the water during the preliminary events today, and the endurance and sprint championships today and Sunday, respectively.

No matter which teams come out on top, Buffalo already has emerged as a winner in this event, organizers said.

Delaware Park Lake is "an ideal venue because of its smooth surface and controlled environment," said Peters, who was impressed by the team
that lured the competition to Buffalo -- among them Richard Geiger, president of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, County Executive Joel A. Giambra and Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

A big selling point was Buffalo's summer weather -- typically the sunniest, coolest and driest in the Northeast -- noted Joan K. Bozer, a former Erie County legislator and member of the Western New York Sustainable Energy Association, a Solar Splash sponsor.

The boating competition, which was scheduled as part of the Pan-American Exposition centennial, dovetails nicely with one of the centennial's central themes, "re-envisioning electricity," Bozer said.

Buffalo's 1901 world's fair featured the most extensive display of electrical power up to that time. As a nod to the electrical past, and to stimulate thought about energy in the future, Pan-Am Women's Pavilion 2001 will soon light up the Connecting Terminal grain elevator and install a "solar pavilion" at the Buffalo Zoo.

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