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