Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Racing Into the Future

I have seen the future of automotive engineering. I have seen the future of design and styling. I have seen the future of machining and construction, and I have been privy to the inspiration of the innovations of which they spurred. These diverse advancements were being explored through another futuristic concept: the future of team organization.

All of these are intimately related to the future of motorsports and all could be seen firsthand at an isolated research and testing facility in rural Alabama this last weekend. I know this because I was there – at Baja SAE Auburn 2012.

Allow me to provide some history and some details. Our small college here in northern Lower Michigan has an engineering team that competes in annual “Mini Baja” events through the Society of Automotive Engineers. The SAE dates back to 1905 – some car-crazy, young Michigander named Ford was the group’s first vice president – and its focus has always been on encouraging, supporting and promoting research developments in safety, performance and efficiency.

This group has been at the epicenter of transportation innovation for nearly a century; engineers in aeronautics, farm equipment, and motorized boating became affiliated with SAE back in 1916, providing the society with its present-day connections to anything mobility-related.

The SAE even allowed some of us touchy-feely cultural types to play a role in their on-going exploration of transportation’s evolution and innovation. Yours truly was a member of the SAE for two years a decade ago and I presented a paper about Barney Oldfield and early motorsports technology at the group’s World Congress in Detroit in 2001, just a couple weeks after Dale Earnhardt’s death.

My time with the SAE was limited, but what I learned from its members and their activities forever shaped my thinking about engineering, design, and development of new concepts. Just when I thought I had run my course with the SAE, I found myself pulled back – albeit briefly – into its circle.

A colleague of mine has advised a student engineering club at our college for many years and their primary project has always been building a racer for the SAE’s “Mini Baja” division, one of 12 collegiate-level design competition areas supervised by SAE. Other design competitions include Formula SAE (for open-wheeled, SCCA-like race cars) and SAE’s “Clean Snowmobile” Challenge (for “greener” examples of these popular recreational vehicles).

Our college has had varying levels of success in the Mini Baja division over the past decade or so; students at our school have always worked within the confines of SAE’s strict rulebook and our college’s tight budget.

While larger universities typically spend close to six figures on their cars, our team had only about $12,000 with which to work. The engineering students had to scrimp and save and build their racer through sponsorship donations, gifts of parts and/or equipment and a small donation from the college’s Student Government Association.

Last year’s Mini Baja car did fairly well in competition, having been designed and built to race on an off-road course strewn with trees, rocks and railroad ties (it also had to traverse a quarter-mile of waist-deep water). The car for Baja SAE Auburn 2012 would be facing different challenges.

This year’s car was brand new from wheels to rollcage, which required increased amounts of money, energy, hardware and time. Since this project is not part of classes taught at our college, students must find the free time during which to weld, grind, bend and assemble the suspension and body parts needed to transform their ideas and theories into a rolling reality.

The 2012 SAE “Mini Baja” car was an improvement over last year’s machine, but it would still be less advanced in design and construction than cars built by better-funded teams. To residents of NASCAR Nation, this fact was more rule than exception.

So, how did I get dragged back into the SAE fold? It had to do with my residency in the aforementioned NASCAR Nation. My professional path winds through the wilds of motorsports and through the jungles of NASCAR most directly, so when our engineering club needed a suitable backup adviser for their trip to compete in Alabama last weekend, my name floated toward the top of the list.

Our club’s regular adviser was in a hospital in Indianapolis while his son received chemotherapy for a rare and aggressive form of cancer. A call was quickly put out for full-time faculty members to assist with the trip; two of us answered the call, packed our bags and headed for Opelika in two rented transport vehicles with race car, tools, parts and students.

Did I mention that I had just returned home from my PCA/ACA conference trip to Boston? We made it home Monday night in time for work on Tuesday. A voicemail at my office early Tuesday morning pleaded with me to “take a trip” later in the week; it wound up that said late-week trip would leave from our campus at 3:00 on Wednesday afternoon!

Suddenly I was back in NASCAR mode: return from one event, do laundry, repack and hit the road for the next week’s race. The fact that most of my courses (and all of my students) are online made the adventure possible … that, and the added benefit of having a supportive spouse!

The SAE Mini Baja event was to be held at the National Center for Asphalt Technology (NCAT) in Opelika, Ala., about 30 minutes from the campus of Auburn University. Events would be laid out all around the NCAT site, which is actually a working engineering research facility, including dynamic events (a hill climb and acceleration, maneuverability and suspension tests) and a four-hour, Le Mans-style endurance race on Sunday.

The dynamic events were all about providing your mettle against challenging layouts like a dirt course that wove its way 300 yards up a steep hillside and a suspension test track that featured a heavily-wooded, rock-strewn embankment into a ravine laden with buried concrete pipes, telephone poles and railroad ties.

I’m proud to say that our college finished 13th out of 102 entries on this monster.

Sunday’s endurance race was along a 2-mile course of changing elevation and surface (everything from dirt to grass to gravel/rocks). One of the spectator areas offered a spectacular view of the Mini Baja cars as they ran a high-speed straight that led to a tabletop dirt mogul.

Upon landing (if you still had four wheels on your car), competitors then had to cross a section of unimproved railroad track before dropping downhill and making an off-camber, hairpin left into the woods. The idea was for teams to complete as many laps as possible during the available four hours.

Pit stops for fuel, tires (if needed), and driver changes (each team had 3-5 at the ready) were not about speed, although quick stops meant more track time and more laps scored.

The cars, fully designed and built by college/university students, followed a pretty strict set of regulations, mostly for cost and safety purposes. Each car had to use a stock 10-horsepower Briggs-and-Stratton gasoline engine and all vehicles were required to carry a fire extinguisher and have two kill switches.

All of the Mini Baja cars had to incorporate a rollcage and a five-point harness system, and all drivers had to wear full-faced, Snell-approved motocross helmets, gloves and at least a Nomex shirt/jacket with cotton pants (several drivers actually wore full driving suits).

Suspensions and drivetrains were of each team’s choice, although most cars seemed to utilize coil-over shocks on each wheel (many teams chose to use air shocks) and centrifugal clutch systems like you’d see on a go-kart or snowmobile. The heaviest Mini Baja cars were close to 700 pounds, with the lightest car weighing a bit over 300 (our school’s entry tipped the scales at 501 pounds, minus driver).

The 2012 Baja SAE Auburn event included teams of student engineers from all over the world. Several teams from India entered the event, as did teams from Korea, France, the British Isles and Mexico.

One Indian team was located next to my college’s garage in the paddock area. These students seemed to be carrying all their parts and tools in grocery sacks and tote bags, and we later discovered that they had to hire a taxi to get them to and from the track from their motel.

It didn’t take our team long to see that these students needed help, so we began offering use of our generator, our work lights and even our welding equipment.

Some aspects of their car (which was a solidly-built, rather squat machine that was more rugged than racy, having been fashioned out of old/used industrial parts) required actual components from us; we loaned the team an extra fire extinguisher and bracket set-up and we gave them a second kill-switch that made them legal enough to run the events.

The overall philosophy behind an event like this is to provide students with much-needed real-life learning experiences. It is one thing to study an engineering or design concept in class and it’s another to experiment with ideas on paper, but it’s an entirely thorough education to apply what you learned to the construction of an actual racing machine.

Such hands-on learning secures the future of motorsports in that it gives students a taste of what automobile racing is like. Not only are the teams required to formulate and submit business plans, but their design innovations are closely scrutinized (and critiqued openly) during Q&A sessions with event administrators.

Technical inspection is both rigorous and frustrating as most teams fail their first attempt (our team passed on the first try and was awarded a brand new engine for their accomplishment).

Such classroom experiences align closely with their professional counterparts. NASCAR race teams – and teams in any form of motorsport, for that matter – go through the same trials and tribulations as they prepare cars, compete against their peers and face the criticism of fans, sponsors, the media and the sanctioning body.

The same universal rules apply: the haves typically do better than the have-nots, hard work is both expected and necessary, and good luck is something you make for yourself. These lessons are introduced through the Baja SAE experience, but their relevance is eternal. The student engineer of today who becomes the race engineer of tomorrow will operate under the same guidelines, no matter what kind of vehicle is parked in their paddock.

Like most paddock areas, the Baja SAE Auburn garage was all about helping those in need. Such is the case around NASCAR garages, where parts, pieces and tools can be borrowed from another competitor (often with free advice thrown in, to boot). Racers can be generous to a fault, but such behavior is what makes our business so unique. It was encouraging to see the future of motorsports exhibiting the qualities so crucial to the basic nature of our attitude.

Helping those in need (or seeking the advice of fellow competitors) is a central trait in racing, but it’s not always encouraged within the culture of serious academic research; I know of colleges where advance knowledge of a competitor’s topic is met with stripped shelves and hidden books. Racing is a tough business and one that’s often too tough to address alone. Learning to accept need, opportunities and your own limitations is where a successful future in motorsports begins.

Accepting your own limits leads to a time when you can help others who are now where you once were.

Based on the generosity I saw from the students representing my college and from the cooperative nature of teams competing at the 2012 Baja SAE Auburn weekend, I’d say the future of motorsports looks pretty positive. Doing more with less seems to be the mantra of these collegiate teams, even though the end result is what we’d expect of racers from any nation in any division.

Being relevant in an event (to borrow the word from 2011 Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart) is still essential and winning remains the ultimate goal, but these future designers, engineers, crew chiefs and drivers see racing in a different context. They see themselves as part of a larger community – a community that blends the socialization of college with the seriousness of motorsports competition.

The challenge of these Mini Baja races is not simply to go faster, climb higher and last longer. The real challenge is to turn abstract ideas into tangible racing vehicles. What was true for visionaries like Henry Ford and Alexander Winton a century ago was alive and well at a research facility in the woods outside Opelika, Ala.

I should know. I was there and I saw the future.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via