University of Arizona Baja Racing placed a record 12th in a field of 117 teams at a recent international collegiate off-road racing competition, only a year after the student engineering club achieved an all-time best position of 21st out of 100.
Student teams from the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico and Venezuela hit the dirt in June to compete in the Baja SAE Collegiate Design Series, hosted by the University of Wisconsin College of Engineering.
The event was organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers and held in Burlington, Wis., at the proving grounds of transportation engineering firm MGA.
UA Baja Racing's overall score this year was 771 points out of a possible 1,000, a significant improvement of 103 over last year's 668.
Sean Hays, team president and civil engineering senior, was clear about how the team achieved this giant leap up the rankings. "Testing, testing, testing," he said. "We did more testing, more tuning, and more validation to see where we could take out every last gram of excess weight and squeeze every last tenth of a horsepower from the engine."
The result is all the more impressive given the setbacks experienced by the team since last year's personal best performance. "We had a rough year," Hays said. "Two months ago we didn't even know if we would make it to the competition. We lost so many experienced team members after graduation, and had to fight through the growing pains all over again."
But this year's rookie team members were equal to the challenge. "The whole team put in countless hours to get up to speed," Hays said. "We all spent a lot of time in the shop and lots of time behind the wheel improving our driving skills, looking for ways to shave competition times by half a second here or there."
After graduation in May, team members virtually lived in the shop in the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering building. Most team members had jobs or internships, but worked tirelessly until the time came to trailer the racecar ready for the trip to Wisconsin.
"Between final exams and race day, we were in the shop every day, often utill 2 a.m.," Hays said. "There were quite a few sleepless nights – I couldn't count them all. Work, shop, rinse, repeat."
Former Baja club president Josh Spivey graduated in mechanical engineering in May 2011, when he handed over club presidential reins to Hays. Since then he's been advising and supporting the rookie team any way he can.
"The team lost seven highly experienced seniors who graduated last year," Spivey said. "They had to make up for the loss of knowledge and experience this year while still taking steps forward and not backwards like a lot of teams do in this situation."
The fact that a relatively inexperienced team still placed 12th at a major international competition means that Spivey, and indeed the entire Baja team, have high hopes that 2013 will be the year the UA team really makes its mark in the world of collegiate Baja racing.
"I'm really looking forward to next year," Spivey said. "I know that placing 12th has given the team the confidence to work really hard next year and hopefully place in the top 10."
Hays concurs: "We are right on the threshold of becoming one of the elite legacy teams. We know it and our competitors know it," he said. "We have built a history of moving up and next year we'll be in the top 10."
A winning strategy for ranking highly in this competition is to deliver strong performances in every category. "We did well in every event – that's how you win," Hays said.
In the static events – cost and design reports and presentations – the UA team improved 18 points over last year to score 225 out of 300. In the dynamic events, such as acceleration, maneuverability, pulling power and mud bogging, they added 42 points to score 222 out of 300.
In the all-important endurance race, which accounts for 400 of the maximum available 1,000 points, the team upped their game by 43 to score 324 points. The endurance race is often where the competition is won or lost, and this year's organizers placed telephone poles throughout the course to test vehicles to their limits.
"It was a rough course, but exciting with big jumps," Hays said. "One of the telephone poles we had to get over – which got nicknamed Big Bertha – must have been two feet in diameter. She broke a lot of front suspensions."
Baja SAE, organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers, consists of regional competitions that simulate real-world engineering design projects and their related challenges. The idea behind the competition is to prepare team members for work in the real world and its rules and regulations, deadlines and goals.
UA Baja Racing designs new a vehicle every year and competes in the Baja SAE Collegiate Design Series every summer. Teams must design, build, market and race a single-seat off-road vehicle while securing financial support for their vehicles and keeping up educational priorities.
The UA racecars from the last few years are still operational, which means the team has a solid basis for further testing. "We have three years of cars all running," Hays said. "They are all a bit different, which is great for testing different aspects of the way we build a new car."
In 2013, Hays will transfer club presidency to another team member, maybe one of his "rookies" from this year's successful team. But he's already looking beyond that at the UA Baja Racing team legacy.
"My goal for the team is that in three years, when this year's rookies are ready to graduate, we'll go to two national competitions a year and place in the top 10 at both," he said. "People don't forget you easily then."