Sunday’s Baja SAE Mud Bath

The complete story of Sunday’s four-hour Baja endurance race would be too wordy for today’s limited attention spans, so while we wait for SAE to post the scores, here are the Cliff Notes:
SUN_8323.jpgWater Challenge:
Pole position was determined by the fastest cars in Saturday’s water challenge. The Miners were nearly last in line, but managed to pass half a dozen teams in the first lap of water-borne chaos.
Eventually, three cars capsized, one of which was on fire. The driver got out in record time, and rather than waste a perfectly good fire extinguisher, they just rolled the car over. Problem solved.
Cars clambering up the gravel ramp eventually scoured out the bank so badly that later drivers couldn’t return to terra firma. That left up to ten somewhat nervous drivers checking their flotation systems while drifting about, waiting for their turn to charge the ramp. Solution? Round up volunteers to wrestle each car out of the drink. Solved.
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SUN_8163.jpg“Dry” Land
Four hours of 50-car Baja racing is the geographical equivalent to earthquake liquefaction, churning “normal” mud into the consistency of cake batter. Flotation chambers easily got high-centered and stuck firmly in the mud. It took three large ATVs and half a dozen mud people, er, volunteers to get one unlucky car moving again.
Low spots became traffic jams, with cars patiently waiting until the grinning, mud-covered laborers freed each obstructing vehicle. Repeat process for at least half of the remaining vehicles on each lap.
Driver Wear and Tear
The race’s very first turn was a disaster; the Geico Gecko’s nightmare, if you will. A high percentage of testosterone mixed with youth and lots of adrenaline, but at least no texting while driving. One vehicle got hit just right (wrong?) and nearly rolled over sideways.
One of the faster cars suddenly veered into a ditch for no obvious mechanical cause. The driver’s explanation? His mud-covered goggles blinded him so he simply guessed the location of the hairpin turn, and fell short by about 30 feet. New DSC_9019.jpggoggles and a quick ATV tow had him back in the hunt in minutes, but his buddies willnever let him forget that stunt.
On the rare flat, dry stretches it was Briggs & Stratton-powered games of chicken; two cars charging into a gap in the trees barely wide enough for one. Kinda like NASCAR without the beer sponsors, fanboy t-shirts and fake leather Viagra jackets.
Where was S&T in this mess? They’d improved their water propulsion systems to claw into the middle of the pack. Then the motor blew out, necessitating a one-hour engine swap. Somehow they managed to replace the hot engine, repair a broken shift connection, and get back on the course. What’s so special about that? The Miners were one of only about 25% of the cars were still running when the checkered flag came down.. This is one of just two or three races in the team’s 6-year history in which the team accomplished that goal.
Not bad, not bad at all.

Baja SAE Gets Underway For Real

Baja11DSC_8671.jpgYesterday’s monsoon left the track a mess, but cool breezes early today changed things quickly. By noon winds had picked up enough that walking was comfortable, but only on the facility’s upper reaches. The valley floor was a different story (more on that later).
On day #1 the Miners almost cleared tech inspection without incident, but one judge had a different interpretation of a chassis rule. That meant once the night-time tornado danger passed they welded steel braces into #45’s floorboards before trying to pass on a retest. Then they car sailed through tech and acceleration, leaving the students free to tackle the hill climb and swim test.
SUN_7113b.jpgSwim test? Yes, a 300-yard swim. S&T’s car showed amazing stability in the lake, but due to a faulty tunnel design it wasn’t very fast. It was so “not very fast” that when it tacked into the wind, it essentially stopped. Dead in the water.
Once towed to shore, they talked devised a plan to direct water backwards, thereby (hopefully) moving the car forward. While those plans jelled they tackled the maneuverability and traction courses. And that’s where the valley floor comes into play………
Where did all that rain go? The same place where the dynamic maneuver and suspension tests were laid out. The heavy rains turned the courses into deep muck. So thick in places that cars could neither maneuver or find traction, so course workers quickly wore themselves out pushing cars from the mire. The Miners slogged through both events attempting to rack up points, and even managed to handle the hill climb, acceleration and tilt tests.
Baja1102DSC_8818.jpgThat means tonight is dedicated to moving the fenders closer to the rear tires so the deep tread develops thrust and directs as little water forward as possible.
Finally they altered the wheel fairings enough to get some “traction” in the water, and tried again, this time successfully, if not terribly fast.
At 9:00 a.m. tomorrow 50+ plus Baja SAE cars will line up in orderly rows, and then the chaos will begin. Four hours of hill climbs, railroad-tie jumping, swimming, collisions, breakdowns, roll-overs, you-name-it, all designed to test the long-term performance of each team’s design.
See you out on the track!

Alabama Dishes Up Plenty Of Rain, Mud For BAJA SAE Event

Bajablog2DSC_8534 - Version 2.jpg S&T’s 2011 student design team competition season kicked off yesterday when two Miner teams, Baja SAE and the Advanced Aero Vehicle Group (AAVG) rocket teams headed to separate Alabama events. More on AAVG later, it was startling to hear today’s car radio announcing a long list of Birmingham AL-area mid-day school closings. No power outage or blizzard this, but an expected tornado outbreak. Strange.
While the twisters were popping out some 60 miles south, the Baja competition site NE of Jasper AL was just drenched! The parking lots were a patchwork of rivers, participants were miserable, dry shoes were rare, and most of the 50+ university teams were crammed in two huge tents for design presentations and driver egress scoring. Oh, did we mention the lightning?? The tents were supported by tall metal poles, and anyone standing next to the massive supports seemed more than a little nervous. Hmmm, they must have been EE majors.
By mid-day the Miners had completed their design presentation and cleared the engine test. Tomorrow (Saturday) includes tech inspection, acceleration, tilt, suspension and maneuverability. Did we mention maneuverability covers both land and water steering? Yep, these cars must be amphibious! Some have buoyancy chambers designed into the cars, while some water wings seem an afterthought. One car has so much floatation it looks like a scaled-down CAT D8 ‘dozer.
Another major requirement is emergency egress, where strapped-in drivers must be completely clear of the car in only five seconds.
In the interest of safety race officials ordered all teams out of the area before the evening storms struck, and so far it seems that everything and everyone is OK.
Let’s revisit the ejection seat egress issue for a moment. The issue is safety; there is a fire risk should two cars collide, so fast escape is essential. This part is not engineering so you don’t earn extra points for style. Just get out, and FAST!
This event is staffed by industry professionals who want to network with their future industry peers, while budding engineers try to put their best, uh, face, forward.
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One student’s parents would be so (sniff!) proud!

By The Time You Read This……………

DSC_3602a.jpg…..the five key members of the S&T Baja racing team will have showered, done laundry, caught up on sleep, and even headed off to summer jobs.
Carl Lacy, Shawn Slinkard, Mark Luman, Matt Callaway and Casey Boyer survived a three-day road trip to Bellingham and Lynden, Washington, four days on site to pass all the competition events, and another three days driving back to Rolla. All without strangling each other.
S&T’s Baja SAE team, at 5 years old, is the newest competition team that operates under the Student Design and Experiential Learning Center (SDELC) umbrella. As a younger team they’ve had a lot of learning to do and a lot or work ahead of them to be competitive with veteran teams. A few years back they won a mud-bog trophy, but this year they made great improvements in the more cerebral (and important) parts of the event, taking 13th in presentation and 19th in design.
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The judges really liked the Miners’ custom-designed, lightweight transmission/differential combination, and another praised they crew as the best presenters of the dozen or so teams he had evaluated. Casey Boyer led the design by converting an old ATV transmission into a more compact package that saved a lot of weight. Low weight makes the car easier to thread through the hundreds (thousands?) of jumps, dips, turns, hills and collisions that the four-hour endurance race throws at drivers and vehicles.
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The gear box worked great in Rolla; wheelies, curb-jumping, acceleration all went fine, and it worked as designed on acceleration, braking and practice at the SAE event, but on the hill climb things got dicey. Carl charged up the hill but had trouble shifting, so it was back to the trailer for repairs. Casey pulled the tranny, took it apart and found nothing wrong; every component worked fine,and the box was soon back in the car. Another run and things got worse as the gearbox jammed, and it turned out to be some broken gear teeth. The Miners had extra gears but were running out of time to practice and complete Friday’s demanding rock crawl.
They installed their only replacement parts too late to get any more points on the day, leaving only the endurance race on which to pin their total score hopes. Their acceleration score put them in line ahead of roughly 60% of the 100 or so teams out there, but the drive train gave up the ghost just as the endurance start line was forming and the Miners were relegated to spectator status.
Three detailed transmission examinations showed what had gone on, but not why. The baja team remains completely stumped by the problems, and if they can’t figure it out they’ll start from gear-shift scratch next year. Too bad that such promising results in the static events didn’t translate into racing success. They ARE happy with the car’s structural and suspension designs, so it looks like they have but one hurdle to clear for next year.
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The other cars? Imagine about 85 cars racing “over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house they go”. All at the same time, on lanes barely wide enough for two cars. Roll-overs, some end-over-ends, t-bone collisions, one fire, and countless failed welds or sheared parts. No one got hurt, and the ones who flipped their cars seemed to be having more fun than anyone.

The First Tenants In Chez Doolittle

DSC_3401_2TLR.jpgThe SDELC recently took delivery of a brand new gooseneck cargo trailer that will be shared by many of the center’s teams. Aside from plenty of lights, tie-downs and electrical outlets, the Doolittle trailer is pretty basic, but the Baja SAE Team is delighted to haul it cross-country on its first official function.
The new rig has plenty of storage area up front to store air mattresses, sleeping bags, and any number of sleep-deprived Miners, so they only have to fall out of bed to work on the car. It’s big enough that they can work on the car during the rain and hailstorms we’ve been getting out here, and work out on-line directional engineering problems such as “where’s the nearest fast-food joint?”

One Of The Strangest Questions We’ve Ever Heard

“Do your Baja and Formula Car Teams hate each other?” We were stunned today when an SAE official asked that question. That individual, who has worked many SAE events, said that it is not uncommon for teams from the same school to be at war, and refuse to even talk to each other.
It is a great tribute to our student teams the Missouri S&T’s scholastic vision that Rolla teams are the exact opposite of that scenario.
It’s been ten years since Missouri S&T established the Student Design and Experiential Learning Center (SDELC) to provide consolidated facilities, assistance and management for S&T’s premier student design teams that up until that point had largely been orphan groups. The center saves money by providing common use facilities and support staff, and helps to leverage large materiel and financial support that is shared among the teams.
Cramming most of these teams in a small production facility and emphasizing inter-team communication has developed a powerful atmosphere of mutual support. A team stumped by a technical problem realizes they can turn to the group next door who may have already found a solution to a similar dilemma, and learn from them.
A student with an especially valuable skill may find a ready home on more than one team that needs her specialized help. Teams can and do join forces to lobby the university for capital equipment that can be shared with all the students.
DSC_3680OU.jpgThis is where they develop the critical networking and team skills they’ll find very valuable when they join the workforce, This “group think” doesn’t just apply to your class- or team-mates; it also holds true for hundreds of your competitors. These competitions are more about learning than winning. Competitors eagerly share parts, tools and technical information because they all have a passion for this work, and they form friendships and professional contacts that will serve them well in their careers. They may well play practical jokes on the team across the paddock, make fun of each other, trade T-shirts or quietly ask “what the heck were they thinking??”, but they’ll all have the shared experience of being active on a design team
Now, how could they do any of that if they won’t even talk to each other? Ludicrous!

Baja SAE Team In The Far Northwest

DSC_3734_2.jpgAnd we do mean FAR. S&T’s Baja Racing Team is camped in Lynden, Washington, less than ten miles from the Canadian Border and just 45 miles from Vancouver, British Columbia. The Miners are here for a four-day mudfest to see whose off-road car is the best.
It’s chilly and windy but the rain has held off ’til just a few minutes ago, which is good because the morning is devoted to waiting for hours in tech inspection lines. Nearly 100 teams are moving through the many inspection stages before they start dynamic events this afternoon.
The Baja cars here range from the tiny to the monstrous; beautifully manufactured and decorated to the best American (or name your country here) examples of, uh, back-yard engineering. The judges report that almost every team going through tech inspection has done well. There are always things to change and get back in line again, but only one team has really struggled.
The Miners have sailed through tech inspection with two very minor corrections, but egress testing was whole ‘nother story…..
The student designers must plan on getting a buckled-in driver clear of car within five second. A confident and lanky Carl Lacy drew the short straw and really left a really frenzied impression on the judges that simple photographs can’t capture. When he launched himself out backwards, he drove his feet all the through the bottom of the car, leaving the belly pan flat on the floor. When the judges stopped laughing, the Miners pleaded for DSC_3769_2.jpginnovation points because, they claimed, rather tongue-in-cheek, the driver could escape from the top or bottom of the car. As one of the Baja Miners said “well, it looks like a half dozen aluminum rivets won’t work.” Ya think??
The only real damage done was to the team’s collective pride, and it won’t take much to reattach the sheet metal. Carl was kind enough to reenact his little adventure (at right) so our readers can feel like they are “here.” Assuming they get it repaired quickly, they’ll have no problem getting through the first dynamic event, braking. We all know these cars can accelerate; the the question is, can they stop?
Stay tuned. A little later we’ll show you what luxurious accommodations the Miners have scored for themselves.
Updates: The Air Force Academy just pulled to the site. Their car’s front end is so high that it looks poise for take-off. Not sure how the driver can see over the hood, but it should do well in the rock-crawl.
Another team pulls a matching trailer behind their car. The rig has a big honkin’ stereo, their display boards, and enough space for a large cooler.

Sometimes Cramming For Exams Is Just A Little Too Late

BajaBlogDSC_0111_2.jpgS&T’s Baja SAE team is marking it’s 5th anniversary with a pretty ambitious schedule. They planned to compete in both South Carolina and Bellingham, Washington, right next to the Canadian border, but now that schedule has been cut in half.
Anyone who’s ever attended college is intimately familiar with cramming for finals. You know, burning the midnight oil for two or three days trying to cram in the details that you SHOULD have been studying all semester. That’s kinda what the Baja SAE team has struggled with this year. Too little, too late, especially for the first competition of the year.
They had some complicated design work that took longer than expected to complete, but they also left too much of the work in the hands of too few people. In any group project there’s always a dedicated core cadre of people who do most of the work, a larger group who contribute as their schedules allow, and maybe a few people who just tag along for the glory. If you’ve been out on the workforce for any period of time, you’ve certainly dealt with this; might as well be exposed to it early in life.
There are some benefits to finding yourself in such a position, because you learn to swallow some pride and make tough decisions. Yes, you could take an incomplete car to competition and hope to finish at the start line, but when you’ve been “cramming” for five days straight, what are the odds that you’ll remember to pack everything? That you’ll have good responses when, unshaven and groggy, you try answering judges’ questions? That you’ll embarrass yourself and your school? That you can safely drive halfway across the country when your crew hasn’t slept for three days? It takes some maturity and honest self-reflection to admit to your failures and learn from the experience.
All is not lost, because their is still a challenging trip to the Pacific Northwest. That means time to step back and evaluate, build, test and refine, so that you are confident in your design, testing and training. And it won’t devastate your team’s finances to reach for too much. That’s a good business decision.
So get some much-needed sleep, go back to your classes (remember those?), and let’s make this right.

New Baja Race Car Hits The Road!

While some S&T students have been partying through the gonzo games, follies, coronation, (not to mention two days of no class) and other St Pat’s festivities, a dedicated core of SAE Baja Team members have been working their “green” off to get their ’09 mud bug ready for competition.
Each student design team sets up production time schedules that sometimes consist of a little wishful thinking, the machine-shop version of cramming for finals. St Pat’s week celebrations serve as a great benchmark of a team’s progress, an opportunity for teams to have a coming-out party and display their projects to the public, and the resurgent Baja team is a great example.
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Team Leader Casey Boyer, Matt Callaway, and other Baja grease monkeys kept the SDELC shop facilities humming during the run up to St Pat’s and managed to debut the new rock-crawler with some crowd-pleasing wheelies during the annual parade. Casey and other team members have quietly given up their spring break holiday to stay in town and work on the car because there is still quite a bit of work to do. Seat belts, fire walls, painting, fuel containment systems, and that all-important sponsor signage still have to be installed on the yet-to-be-named vehicle. Throughout the finishing work the team will continue to test and re-test to root out any design flaws in the weeks before competition. With a more than 50% drop-out rate during the chaotic 4-hour endurance race it is critical that the team test, test, and re-test all their systems prior to heading to Auburn, Alabama in mid-April.
Baja fans will be disappointed to hear that there will be no amphibious event this year so there are no plans for floatation chambers on the car. We do understand that the course will involve some pretty tough rock-crawl elements, so the Miners’ new car is designed with pretty high ground clearance.

A Typical (?) Weekend with the Design Teams

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On weekends S&T’s campus usually gets pretty quiet, but that certainly doesn’t apply to the Miners’ vaunted student design teams. This weekend started with SAE uber-judge Steven Fox giving a fascinating, insightful and humorous 3-hour seminar about race car vehicle dynamics, design approaches, strategy, and the evolution of rule-making at major SAE competitions. With Steve’s decades in the auto manufacturing you might think he’d concentrate on an engineering design that might save the industry. Instead he focused on the design process; how a team accomplishes its goals, the best way to stay focused on the design challenge at hand, and the importance of bringing in new team members at the early stages of design so the team’s entire knowledge base doesn’t suddenly disappear on graduation day. He stressed the old saying that “those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it”, emphasizing that design teams must know the history of design so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated at great cost in time, materials, performance and money. Another old saying that crept into his talk was KISS, and if you don’t know what that means, well……………..
DSC_8217_2.jpgAfter dinner at world-famous Alex’s Pizza, the Miners hosted a shop tour and turned the table on Steve by presenting the design approach that recently earned S&T Racing world-ranked recognition. Team members showed Steve their plans for a wheel mounting system that will reduce the component count by 40% and save considerable weight at the corners. This after-pizza was an excellent rehearsal for the design presentations that are a critical part of most student design events; you might win all the races, but if you can’t explain how or why you did it you probably won’t win the event. If you were in industry you won’t be able to get the financial backing to put your project into production, and you might not have a job any longer so it pays to do your calculations and test and verify at each benchmark. DSC_8233.jpg Steve frequently praised the S&T FSAE group for its commitment to growth and innovation, their strong emphasis on pre-race testing, and their ability to stay ahead of schedule.
FSAE wasn’t the only student taking advantage of the class-free time. The Concrete Canoe Team went into full-scale production Saturday with a new and far less labor-intensive method for building the unlikely craft. Mark Ezzell, Patrick Tilk and a few others were the mix-preparation squad, keeping a soup-like concrete slurry ready for Matthew Struemph’s spray gun. DSC_8254.jpg Their new system, the results of which haven’t yet been tested in water, should strengthen the boat because it will eliminate seams that can lead to cracking. The actual (proprietary?) mix includes fine glass beads to help reduce weight and make the craft more buouyant, and anyone who has tried to carry a concrete boat will agree that’s a great idea.
Mixing the material in finely-measured small batches had another advantage. A group of very bright engineering students from Atlanta happened to be visiting campus and when told they’d see a boat made of concrete they were quite incredulous. The boat builders took a few breaks to host the potential transfer students, explain how the Miners often work in open-ended design challenges, and show their guests the fun and appeal of a S&T education.
DSC_8249_2.jpgLastly, S&T’S baja and solar car teams both were toiling away in the background. Casey Boyer stayed busy producing car parts on the SDELC shop lathe, while Dan Welty and several new team members toiled away on plans for Solar Miner VII. The spring semester is when the teams, who typically design the systems in the fall, get into full production.