UA Engineering Students Build and Race Formula Car

UA's SAE Formula Car Team posed for a photo before going to Pontiac, Mich. for the annual Formula SAE competition. Raytheon's UA campus manager, Brian Perry, is in the white shirt, standing at right in the back row.

An open-wheel racecar built by UA engineering students finished 97th out of 125 entries at the annual Formula SAE competition in Pontiac, Mich. The May 15 to 19 event was organized by SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers), and collegiate teams from the United States, Canada, England, Mexico, Korea, Puerto Rico and Japan participated.

Rain delays marred the competition. Eventually, only cars that placed in the top 56 in earlier parts of the competition were allowed to start the 22 Km endurance race, which accounted for 40 percent of each team's score.

"We were in line to start 79th, all gassed up with the tarp over the car, just waiting for the rain to stop," says team leader David Felix, a mechanical engineering senior. "But it never did stop, and they called the race a few hours later."

UA also faced competition from teams whose schools offer classes designed around the SAE formula car competition. Some had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their cars and team expenses, and had 50 or more students to design and build the car.

The UA car was built for only $30,000, with many donated parts and some credit card debt for the team's 15 members. Raytheon Missile Systems contributed the largest cash sponsorship with a $7,500 donation. Exxon Mobile, Visteon, Jim Click Automotive, Superior Machine Fabrication, the UA Foundation, UA College of Engineering and Mines, and the UA Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering (AME) department also helped sponsor the car.

The Raytheon money was a boost that came early in the project. "And that really put the wind in our sails -- just knowing that all of the calling and mailing (seeking funds) was for a reason, that there were people out there who wanted to help, despite the poor economic condition of the country," Felix says. "I hate to think of how the project would have turned out without Raytheon's help."

Felix adds that facing well-financed teams that have had years of experience didn't discourage the team. There's always next year's race. And if UA can place more emphasis on the project by providing more resources and attracting more students from other disciplines, Felix feels next year's formula car will have a better chance for success.

This year's team consisted mostly of mechanical engineering students, with one from Electrical and Computer Engineering and another from Materials Science and Engineering. Several of the team members worked on the car to satisfy the requirements for their senior project.

This year's car isn't eligible for next year's race, but Felix hopes it will remain in running condition so future teams will have a chance to base their designs on a complete, working vehicle.

The team spent about 18 months on the car prior to the competition. The first semester involved fund raising and research. The second semester was devoted to design, and the third semester was spent building the car.

A 610cc Honda motorcycle engine powers the car and also serves as a stress member in the frame, just as in a motorcycle. The team used computer-based finite element analysis to design the frame, and went through 20 iterations before they were satisfied with the design. The suspension also went through extensive computer design. "We spent most of the summer doing research," says mechanical engineering senior Bart Vaughn, who was part of the suspension design group.

Everything eventually came together under a skin of red carbon fiber and Kevlar. Powered by its 70 hp engine, the car will rocket from zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds, which puts it in the same league as many exotic sports cars.

The SAE competition involved several tests including:

  • Technical inspection
  • Brake test
  • Skid pad test
  • Acceleration
  • Two autocross time trials
  • Cost report
  • Design report
  • Oral presentation
  • 22 Km endurance race

Despite the long hours, frustration at times, and rain, Felix says the project was well worth the effort.

"The sense of accomplishment was the best thing about building the car," he says. "Being able to go through the process of conceptualizing the car, designing it, building it all, and then driving the idea that started in each of our minds Ñ it's a great feeling."

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