Imagine designing and building an off-road racecar, totally from scratch. It must endure mud, rocks, water and whatever else is thrown at it, all while meeting competition restrictions. Over a period of six short months, this is exactly the challenge RIT’s Baja Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Team faces.
|David Donaldson crosses Jefferson Road on his way to practice with the RIT Baja team. Practices are held in vehicles the team has built in past years so that drivers have plenty of experience behind the wheel once the current year’s car is completed.
A Baja vehicle is a miniature off-road racecar that utilizes a lawn mower-sized engine. Or, as team manager Evan Lumby, a third year Mechanical Engineering major, puts it, “it’s basically a go-kart on steroids.” The team is composed of 25 dedicated members, who act just as much like a family as they do a team. As Lumby says, “Our team really is a group of friends, we work together for a common goal, and we’re always hanging out together.” It is certainly this devotion to the sport, as well as the team’s cohesiveness, that has led to success in recent years, a trend they hope to continue this upcoming season.
The Drawing Board
The first step in the creation of a Baja car is the design process. For the RIT Baja team, design work begins in September and usually lasts through winter break, ending around Jan. 1. For the team, designing the car is by far the longest process on the road to completion, and it also one of the most important. It is during this phase that the team must design their car to meet certain specifications, such as speed and durability, and work around competition restrictions that keep the sport fair.
The responsibility for this initial stage falls on the design team. To ensure that every aspect is covered, each member is responsible for a specific aspect of the vehicle including breaking, steering or suspension. Composed of 16 members, the design team works together under the supervision of the project manager who oversees everything related to the design, manufacturing and repair of the car. But the design team’s work doesn’t end there, after the car is carefully planned, they will spend the winter months making their design a reality.
Building a Beast
Over the next month and a half, the team manufactures the car quickly but meticulously, working on a tight schedule to prepare for springtime competitions. Much like the design process, each member is responsible for assembling a certain aspect of the vehicle, helping ensure that the process runs smoothly under such a time crunch.
In recent years, the team has designed and built an entirely new car from scratch while also repairing and upgrading the previous year’s car. This year, however, the team decided to focus their efforts on only building one car, realizing that last year’s vehicle was damaged beyond repair.
Another important aspect of the manufacturing process is cost analysis. The team must record every purchased piece of equipment’s price as well as the amount of time spent on the project in order to calculate a “real world analysis” of the car’s cost. This cost analysis is used to judge each team in the competition; the team with the lowest estimated cost scores the most points.
Each year, the team runs on a budget of approximately $50,000, which includes materials as well as travel costs. While the cost of each car alone is around $10,000, the team stocks up on multiple spares of each part in case something breaks during a race, causing costs to rise quickly. Fortunately, RIT’s Baja team is extremely well-funded, receiving a significant amount of money from the school with additional donations from numerous sponsors including Toyota, Honda and several local businesses. “We’re probably one of the top five best-supported schools in the country,” says Lumby. “We try to give back by doing well.”
Putting It To The Test
Each year, the Baja team attends three major competitions — one each in April, May and June — held by the SAE. This year, the team will travel to Birmingham, Ala., Pittsburg, Kan. and Peoria, Ill. Each competition will last about four days, with a different event hosted each day.
On the first day, the team typically competes in static events wherein the car is scrutinized by tech inspectors who are usually industry engineers. On the second day, each team usually competes in a variety of dynamic events such as off-road races; these are used to test the speed and durability of each car. On the third day, the endurance race usually takes place; here, teams compete to score the most laps within a four-hour time limit.
While speed may get a car ahead quickly during the endurance race, it is a car’s durability and strength that leads it to victory, overcoming rocks, mud, posts and more. The friendly attitude of RIT’s Baja team is apparent during this endurance event; they often help other teams fix their cars to get the back into the race. “When we go to races, we probably work on other people’s cars more than we work on our own,” says Nicholas Liotta, a fourth year Mechanical Engineering major and project manager. “People need to get in the races — it doesn’t matter if you’re our biggest competitor or just some new team that started five weeks ago. Our only rule is that our cars come first.”
On the fourth day, the top three teams in various categories are named and honored at an awards dinner. Cash prizes between $250 and $1,000 are available for the top three contenders in three categories: design, endurance and overall performance. This year, RIT is hoping to win the Mike Schmidt Award, which is given to the team with the highest cumulative score from all three competitions.
The Mike Schmidt Award is not only prestigious, but it also holds sentimental meaning for the RIT team. Schmidt is an RIT alum and former member of the RIT Baja Team. His dream was to compete in all three races, but at that time, the RIT’s car was unable to finish an endurance race. In 2001, Schmidt tragically passed away in an auto accident at the age of 21, leaving the award as a sign of his dedication to the program.
Winning the Mike Schmidt Award is the team’s ultimate goal, and with their track record, it seems extremely possible. In the last three years, the team has taken either first, second or third in almost every event, improving each time. For Lumby and the rest of the RIT Baja team, the goal is in sight. With a little elbow grease, they very well may pull through. By polishing up their paperwork — a major source of point deductions in the past — and concentrating their efforts on only one car, this could prove to be a momentous year for Baja at RIT.