Photo by Cole Wharton
In the UM-Flint engineering department, determined and inventive students are crafting an ambitious off-road vehicle made to impress judges and competitors alike.
Painted a brilliant blue with text on top sporting an even brighter yellow, the one-seater’s axles protrude outward, almost aggressively. Showcasing a large ‘41’ on the front and logo on the side, the vehicle often serves as a cleverly placed advertisement for the Baja Racing Team, a club created by the Society of Automotive Engineers on campus.
Currently, the club is looking to recruit adventurous and passionate students to join their off-road car building and design team. Even though Baja is primarily filled with engineering students, former team captain Tim Rosa encourages those that aren’t majoring in engineering or are even interested in engineering itself to join the team.
“ … Building the car is sixty percent of the competition,” said Rosa. “Really, theres alot of behind the scenes that goes into it such as, you know, rules analysis … cost analysis, design analysis, market analysis … it’s a very diverse club to be in.”
The other 40 percent Rosa mentioned encompasses non-engineering work, with one vital aspect of the process being the sales pitch of the vehicle. After the team spends months designing and building a mechanically and economically viable off-road vehicle, they also need to prove to the judges that their car is marketable and could be mass-produced.
“This presentation must consider everything in the process and showcase how our car stands out and is a good investment for further development, manufacturing, and production,” said current captain and UM-Flint Mechanical Engineering major Kirsten Swanson.
“In this part, you really must know everything about the car, changes in rules and our process of how we developed the car. Each year we need to improve our car from last year’s model, based on rule changes, update safety, and ergonomics.”
To some, Baja may just be about building exciting cars and racing, but Swanson feels there is more to that idea than meets the eye.
“Yes, we want to build a safe, fast, and sporty car to race but there are so many more key factors that we also need to consider,” said Swanson.
Rosa, Swanson and the Baja Team spent months out of the school year building, designing and planning the off-road vehicle to participate in one of three racing and design competitions held in various states. In the past, Baja has traveled to compete in states like Kentucky, Illinois and Arizona.
During the building season, different teams move at their own speed to complete their Baja car. While a first-place win may be impressive, getting a car to competition is a feat in and of itself.
“Last year was a bit different because we had a bit of change of leadership halfway through the year. And then we came in and we started building the car a bit late, and we couldn’t really make any of the extensive design choices that normally we would like to,” said Aritra Chakrabarty, a longtime Baja Team member.
At last year’s ‘SAE Baja Rochester 2019’ competition, the team placed 87 out of 100 teams. However, according to Rosa, they will have eight months to design and build the car this year–six more than what they had to work with last year.
Rosa feels the race is more than just an exercise to see whose vehicle was built the best–it’s a form of indirect collaboration, a large collective of innovators and engineers working together to reach the common goal of taking a car from blueprint drawings to reality.
The team starts with a design report, which according to Swanson, “is one of the first aspects we must focus on because we base our build off this report”. The report encompasses many different elements, with the most vital being frame design.
“We start with a basic design with the minimum qualifications from the rule book. Once this is done, we can start changing the design to be more unique and efficient,” said Swanson.
When the design process is finished, the Baja team must start running efficiency tests to see how the vehicle will fair. After they’ve collected the data from the first tests, they make any necessary changes to improve the car’s performance. Once this is all complete, a report is written on the purpose of every part of the vehicle, the function it serves and why the team decided on that specific part.
Simultaneously, the team conducts cost analysis, an accurate evaluation on how much the vehicle will cost overall during construction.
“We start by breaking down the car into subsystems, and from there we break the sub-system down to each individual part to find what the associated cost will be,” said Swanson. “We can estimate the cost of manufacturing the car from this breakdown.”
Finally, while at the competition, the team conducts a marketing presentation. The presentation serves as a faux sales pitch to judges, and why they should invest in their prototypes over the competition’s prototypes.
“This presentation must consider everything in the process and showcase how our car stands out and is a good investment for further development, manufacturing, and production,” said Swanson. “In this part, you really must know everything about the car, and our process of how we developed the car.”
As well as competing in a 4-hour race, the Baja Team is also judged on static and dynamic events. Dynamic events deal with the direct abilities of the vehicle, like acceleration and endurance tests. Static events involve the evaluation of the team’s use of finances and resources, as well as the presentation of a sales pitch like mentioned above. At this point in the competition, natural amity is created within the team.
“ … It’s a real comradery builder for everyone involved,” said Rosa. “ … You go to compete against each other but the whole point is for everybody to be able to compete … We all want everybody to be able to take part in as many things as possible so if another team needs help, we reach out and help them and then vice versa.”
Rosa and Swanson divvy up the work that makes up the 60 percent and 40 percent of the Baja process, but everyone working either in marketing, sales, or building the car itself makes up the 100 percent. A car is built out of many moving parts, and it takes the back-breaking work of inspired and determined students to bring such a unique vehicle to life and see it cross the finish line.
To become a member, join the Baja Team every Tuesday from 1:45-2:30 p.m. and every Saturday at 10 a.m. in the Annexe, located underneath the facility parking structure by French Hall. If you’re interested in joining the team, contact Tim Rosa.
“Really, just show up … It doesn’t matter if you’ve never tightened down a screw in your life, we want you to be there and we’ll help you to learn as much as you can learn.”