For the third consecutive year, the Oklahoma Christian University SAE Baja team is working to build from scratch an off-road vehicle capable of maneuvering through a tight obstacle course and enduring a grueling four-hour lap race.
The team of senior mechanical engineering students will match up against approximately 100 universities and international clubs—including top Division I programs like Michigan University and Clemson University—at the Baja SAE Tennessee Tech competition in Cookeville, TN April 11-14.
After placing 75th at last year’s competition, team leader Trevor Burch said the group hopes to rank within the top 25 at this year’s event by reducing the vehicle’s frame weight and focusing on overall strength and endurance. At 60 pounds, this year’s vehicle has half the frame weight of last year’s model, according to Burch.
“We’re focusing on the endurance portion of the race because endurance is worth the most points,” Burch said. “We went over the data and looked at the competitions from the past three years, and we broke it down like, ‘If you did this well in the event, where did you place?’ The endurance course showed the highest correlation in where you placed. So, if you placed first in endurance course, you will definitely place at least top 10 in overall competition.”
Once vehicle construction is complete in early February, the group will test the vehicle’s endurance during several trial runs at a professor’s property and make design adjustments if necessary, Burch said.
Complicating the preparation and construction process is a constantly growing list of rules and regulations SAE places on competitors, according to team member Matthew Fusselman.
“The rule list is around 130 pages long and if you break any one of them, your car can’t compete,” Fusselman said. “So, it’s a lot of busy work to look through those rules while you’re designing to make sure you can still compete.”
While some of the rules are safety related, many are meant to prepare students for what they might face working in the automotive industry, team member Tim Young said.
“A lot of the safety things actually come from the automobile industry, where they’re basically taking the expected safety factors for real cars and translating them into terms that work for these miniature Baja cars,” Young said. “Then there’s rules they made because people were bending things and finding weird loopholes. For example, our car from two years ago has a suspension seat, which is basically a hammock. You can’t do that anymore, it’s not very safe. If it’s flipped upside down, your driver can get tangled up and seriously injured.”
In addition to navigating through the rulebook, the team also has the challenge of overcoming limited funding and access to custom parts.
According to Young, the team’s budget was reduced from $15,000 to $12,500 at the beginning of the semester, and some of their money was lost when they ordered the wrong type of steel tubing and was unable to return it.
Unlike several Division I competitors who can make custom parts in-house, Oklahoma Christian’s Baja team must purchase all their parts from outside suppliers, raising costs and limiting design flexibility, Burch said.
According to Burch, the team is hoping to make up for a lack of funding by putting forth more effort and research than their competitors.
“In the real world, every budget is limited,” Burch said. “I think the engineering department wanted to push us to our limits and have us understand that money isn’t the only thing that’s going to give us the best car possible. They also wanted to make sure we didn’t just buy parts willy-nilly and think just because a component is expensive it’s going to be good. It forces us to actually look over the part.”
While composed primarily of seniors completing their final capstone project, the Baja team also welcomes sophomores and juniors to aid in the construction process and join members at competition. The experience gained from aiding last year’s Baja team has proved valuable this year, according to team member Kendall McCoy.
“For a lot of us, just because we’re engineering students doesn’t mean we know how to make a car,” McCoy said. “We’re all learning kind of along the way how cars work and how to a manufacture a working car.”