Driven to succeed: ASU Baja off-road team gearing up for strong comeback

June 27, 2016

An appropriate narrative for the Sun Devil Racing Development club’s 2016 season could parallel the story of the central character in the classic Academy Award-winning movie “Rocky.”

In the film, boxer Rocky Balboa gets knocked around throughout the climactic title fight, but keeps rising up and continuing to battle, exhausting the heavyweight champion and fighting him to a near draw. Sun Devil Racing club's BAJA SAE off-road race car ASU Sun Devil Racing Development club members prepare their car for an endurance race at one of the Baja SAE off-road vehicle competitions sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Racing Development Download Full Image

It was sort of like that this year for the Arizona State University students on the Sun Devil Racing team that participated in the three annual international Baja SAE off-road race car competitions — part of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) College Design Series competitions.

There were some debilitating hits taken by their vehicle’s brake and transmission systems. There was a transmission oil leak that incapacitated the car’s gears.

The car took some score-reducing flips and flops on the hilly, bumpy race courses. Part of the suspension system collapsed in one of the races.

Rallying after setbacks

But through it all, like Rocky Balboa, the ASU team kept fighting to get back in every race, earning respectable results in several categories of the competitions against teams from as many as 85 leading college and university engineering programs.

Although major technical difficulties led to a lackluster overall score in the season’s first competition in Tennessee in April, Sun Devil Racing bounced back impressively to rank in 10th place overall in the California event in May — matching the second-highest overall result in the club’s history — and finished strong in several categories in a competition in New York state in June.

They also made it to the design finals in California — the first time ever by an ASU Baja SAE team.

“We’re proud of how the team rallied against all the things that went wrong and kept pressing forward to get the car rolling and keep competing,” said Zachary Yeskey, a senior majoring in automotive systems engineering.

people riding in baja cars

The resilience of off-road vehicles designed and built by students is put the the test on an endurance race on rough, bumpy terrain. Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Racing Development

Put through rigorous tests

The Baja SAE competitions simulate the challenges of real-world engineering projects that involve the kinds of design, planning and manufacturing skills required in introducing a new automotive product to industry and the consumer market.

Teams generate financial support for their project and compete to have their car’s design accepted for manufacture by a fictitious company. There’s also a detailed cost analysis of what teams spend to manufacture their vehicles.

Students must design, build, test, promote and race a vehicle within the parameters of strict technical specifications, performances standards and competition rules.

All the cars — single-seat vehicles with “roll cage” frames of metal tubing, without a full exterior body — are powered by the same 10-horsepower engine, an Intek Model 20 engine supplied by the Briggs & Stratton Corporation.

The cars are put through meticulous safety and brake inspections. They are evaluated for acceleration, traction, suspension and maneuverability. Their strength and design is put to the test in hill climbs, rock crawls or sled pulls, and then for the finale a jarring four-hour endurance race over rough terrain.

Making advances despite problems

The ASU club has a legacy to maintain in these competitions. The school is one of only 10 to send a team to the very first Baja SAE event 40 years ago.

Based at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, Sun Devil Racing — an SAE student chapter — has about 40 members ranging from students in automotive, mechanical, electrical, manufacturing, software and human systems engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering to those majoring in various branches of the sciences, business and information technology. Teams of up to 12 students have traveled to the Baja competitions.

Club leaders are looking for more members, particularly to broaden the range of skill sets they hope will strengthen their team for future competitions.

“We experienced some failure this year, but we made advances, and we now have a lot of members with solid competition experience,” said senior manufacturing engineering major Joshua Patton, a veteran of four years with the club who has had leading roles in the manufacture and design of team cars in recent years.

student welding car

Sun Devil Racing club members gain
valuable engineering experience
by honing modeling, design and
manufacturing skills in their
Baja car workshop.
Photo courtesy of
Sun Devil Racing Development

An indication that the club’s Baja SAE team is on the rise is the attention the crew’s car has attracted at competitions.

“Some of the top teams, like Michigan, RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), Cornell and the California teams, are looking at our car and asking us a lot of questions,” Patton said. “That tells us they consider us to be a strong contender, so we take their interest as a huge compliment. It’s really cool hearing our team get talked about in the same way those teams are.”

Gaining valuable experience

New Sun Devil Racing president Jason Reichel, a sophomore graphic information technology major, said the club is enabling him to “live my passion for off-roading” and to “pick up a lot of skills” beyond what he’s learning in the classroom.

“It’s not just about engineering, but a lot of business, making professional presentations and doing project documentation and management, and coping with problems in competitive situations,” he said.

Automotive engineering major Yeskey, now a senior, began three years ago as a “wrench turner” on the team, then moved up to lead brakes engineer and this year became the lead suspension engineer and a main driver in the competitions.

“I can attest to the insane amount of engineering and automotive design knowledge that comes from being on the Baja team,” he said. “It prepares students for the industry by making them go beyond the theoretical into practical and applied engineering, giving them the experience employers are looking for.”

The other big payoff, he said, is “being able to see something that you built go out and compete against other well-established engineering schools and perform well. It makes all the late nights and ridiculous number of hours put into the club completely worth it.”

Path to jobs and internships

The buzz about the up-and-coming Sun Devil Racing team goes beyond recognition by competitors, said one of the team’s advisers, Rhett Sweeney, an instrument maker and designer for the Polytechnic School labs.

Some of the industry professionals who serve as organizers and volunteers at the Baja SAE events “have been seeking out our team members and actively recruiting them, inviting them to apply for internships or jobs,” Sweeney said.

“Most of these professionals have had roles on Baja teams in the past. They appreciate the dedication, long hours and all of the hard work that it takes to build a Baja car, and they go to these events looking for potential new hires among the 1,000 to 1,200 students who are participating,” he said. “This is what really makes being on a Baja team worth the effort.”

student driving baja car through course

Sun Devil Racing Baja team
members say they’ve learned
important lessons from hurdles
they’ve faced this year, and are
confident about improving their
performance in future competitions.
Photo courtesy of Sun Devil
Racing Development

Building skills for career pursuit

Club member Nick Pascente, a senior mechanical engineering systems major, said he “hit the ground running” when he joined and was soon tasked with fabricating body panels for the Baja car.

“In a short amount of time, I’ve learned so much about the ‘real-life’ engineering cycle, involving design, manufacturing, testing, validation, problem solving, redesign and team building, and many hands-on skills using various manufacturing equipment,” he said. “I’ll take all of these skills with me into my engineering career.”

Pascente was among club members who traveled to each of this year’s Baja SAE events, where he served as one of the team’s presenters in the competition’s design category.

Despite some setbacks, he said, “I’m impressed with what I’ve seen from our team in the past few months, and I see us becoming an even stronger competitor next year.”

Poised to progress toward the top

The club was in rebuilding mode this year, after several of its leaders had graduated in 2015. But members went on a recruiting drive and signed up a sizable number of new members, and "some have become the backbone of the team,” said adviser Sweeney.

“Many of these new members are freshmen or sophomores who will be a part of the team over the next couple of years. So I feel that we are sitting in a great place, and we have a team that can win at these competitions” he said.

Fellow Baja team faculty adviser Jim Contes, a senior lecturer in the Polytechnic School engineering program, asserts that it’s not unrealistic for the club to set its sights on achieving the top ranking among its Baja SAE competitors.

He points to plans to implement an extensive vehicle development process used in the automotive industry, with the goal of making the team more organized and efficient in modeling, building and testing new vehicles and being better prepared for the challenges of competition.

“Getting to the top is going to take twice as much effort, but our team members have the drive and passion it takes to get there,” Contes said, “and they will.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU students experience sustainability in Morocco

June 27, 2016

A diverse group of Arizona State University students experienced a whole new world when they journeyed to Morocco in May to observe and study the complexities of sustainable development in the villages and other locales where it is happening.

Led by Mary Jane Parmentier, a clinical associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society — along with her teaching assistant, Fulbright scholar Carlo Altamirano, a doctoral student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program — it was the fourth year in a row for this Study Abroad program to the North African Nation sponsored by the School of Sustainability.  Group of students in a van Evvan Morton is left of photographer and undergraduate student Valeria Borough. The group was traveling by van from the town of Zerkten to the tiny village of Ait Khlef, in the Atlas Mountains, where they hiked another hour up the mountain to help restore and paint a primary school. Download Full Image

Parmentier’s familiarity with the area and the contacts she’s maintained since serving as a member of the Peace Corps there in the 1980s, along with the unique mix of cultural influences made Morocco an ideal place to study the sustainable development issues that arise from the different priorities among stakeholders and across different contexts.

“Morocco really is a mosaic of cultures,” said Evvan Morton, an Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering doctoral student in sustainable engineering. “There are strong European, Middle Eastern, and African influences. It was fascinating to experience all of these things in one country.”

Morton and her fellow participants visited several Moroccan cities like Fez and the capital, Rabat, the state-of-the-art Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex, as well as small villages and agricultural cooperatives. The ASU students were even invited into locals’ homes.

“What struck me was their hospitality,” said Morton, who is also pursuing a Responsible Innovation in Science, Engineering, and Society (RISES) certificate from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “Everywhere we went they told us several times that we were welcome. We almost immediately felt like a part of the group or family.”

Having coffee in cafe

Carlo Altamirano and Mary Jane Parmentier enjoy a coffee break in Erfoud while waiting for a flat tire on the bus to be fixed.

Morton was impressed by many of the practices she observed.

“Those living in the cooperatives were very proactive,” she said. “The ones that we visited were using solar panels to pump their irrigation water.”

According to Morton, the government facilities in Rabat were modern and well-appointed, and the ASU group learned a lot when they took part in presentations at the University of Marrakesh.

They weren’t just visitors, however.

“Some of us got to present our own research there,” she said. “We got to share our ideas about what sustainability means to us and how it can help both Morocco and the US.”

The participants discussed and digested what they’d learned in nightly class meetings, and one-on-one time was available with Parmentier and Altamirano while traveling between locales and at other times. While the itinerary was robust, there were times when the students had free time to explore or conduct research on their own.

“It was interesting to learn new things on my own and to compare my own perspective with my classmates’ and Mary Jane’s experiences,” Morton said. “I did gain a lot of experience during the trip. I learned a lot about social science and how to use interviews and personal experience as data for academic application.”

The Study Abroad program has evolved from year to year, becoming more culturally immersive and more focused on evaluating sustainable solutions already being implemented. To enhance those aspects, all three weeks of the program took place in Morocco this year, rather than splitting time between that country and Spain as in previous years.

“Morocco is especially interesting,” Parmentier said. “There is a proliferation of over 120,000 nonprofit ‘associations.’”

These groups, with government encouragement, engage in a very wide range of solution-oriented activities, such as empowering women, repairing public buildings, and supplying schools in remote villages. The ASU contingent worked with several associations but was also able to meet and interact with university students and government representatives from the Morocco Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN).

Touring a solar installation

Touring the use of solar panels for use in irrigation systems at the Barziane Agricultural Cooperative, near the town of Taznakht, near Ouarzazate.

“Hearing (Parmentier's) experiences living there and her observations about how things had changed from her perspective was hugely beneficial," Morton said. "In our pre-departure preparation session, she taught us some useful Arabic words and phrases and what cultural taboos to avoid.”

Parmentier and Altamirano also served as the group’s principal translators. All of the participating students received funds for the bulk of the programs expense through the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative and ASU’s Graduate and Professional Student Association.

Morton recommends Parmentier’s program for anyone interested in learning more about sustainable development.

“Anybody can find value in this. We were a diverse group, ethnically but also in age and specialization,” she said.

Other students represented the School of Sustainability, W. P. Carey School of Business and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The group included a distribution of doctoral, masters and undergraduate students.

"A lot of us associate sustainability with just environmental issues, but it’s a lot more than that. It doesn’t really matter what discipline you’re in,” Morton said.

Beyond her research, Morton expressed a satisfying sense of personal development: “I’ve never been to a Muslim majority country before, and this was a good way for me to break way from some of the more negative stereotypes we hear in the West.”

View a gallery of photos from the program.

Adam Gabriele

Student writer, School for the Future of Innovation in Society