"When the car crossed the line, it felt like I had been holding my breath for the duration of the race," said Chuan Banh, one of the members of UNM's 2010 Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE) racing team. "It was the most rewarding experience of my whole educational career."
Every spring at UNM a new group of mechanical engineering students begins the complicated job of learning how to design and build a small formula racing car as their senior design project. The latest group to race their car began the project in spring 2009. Since then, they've worked with UNM Professor of Mechanical Engineering John Russell to come up with an original design, build it, and prepare it to perform under racing conditions. A group of students started the program in 1997, and Russell took over the program in 1998. He teaches the classes and is advisor to the team as it prepares for the competition.
The 15 students in the 2010 group and another five from the 2011 group have just returned from the International FSAE California Racing competition at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. where it placed 19th overall. Teams from 85 universities entered the competition. Some didn't make it to the competition and others were eliminated in the technical inspections that involve cost, tilt, noise and brake tests to see the cars meet the specifications outlined in the rules.
UNM's team made it through the first phases of the tech inspection in fine shape, but during the final checks before the noise and brake tests on Thursday, it wouldn't start. That set the team scrambling to diagnose the problem and fix it; a process that forced them to miss the skid pad and acceleration tests early the next morning. The problem cost them points in the overall competition, but the car held up well through the final autocross and endurance competitions, slowed only by a problem with the fuel injection system.
Russell says he was very impressed at the way the team handled a very serious problem with the car. "They didn't give up. They went to work to diagnose the problem and stayed with it until they had a solution."
Competition rules say the design teams must put together a car that could be commercially manufactured and defend their choices of engine, materials for the body and other items in a design and cost review. The teams also do a sales presentation, emphasizing their cars best attributes. One of the UNM students had sold used cars in the past. His presentation helped the team pass that part of the competition with flying colors.
Student teams choose their team leader then organize into sub- teams to design and build the systems needed. One sub-team puts together a body design, chooses the materials and constructs the parts. Three local companies, Twisted Composites, Composite Toolings and Water Jet Cutting contribute time, materials and expert assistance to build and shape the body parts. Another sub-team designs and builds the braking systems. Still another sub-team focuses on the steering assembly. Each sub-team must produce a system that fits perfectly with other elements in the car.
Russell says the teams do periodic peer reviews so that every member of the team is held accountable for his part of the overall task. If one team member isn't making an adequate contribution he hears about it from the other members. Russell says that's the most effective way to make sure everyone is equally responsible for the final product. The group chooses a minimum of four drivers who take the car through the acceleration, skidpad, autocross and endurance runs in events.
Some teams have major corporate sponsors, but UNM LOBOMotorsports Team has always managed to do well with a $25,000 contribution from the university and some private contributions from local businesses and supporters. Most of the money goes for parts and equipment and travel. The students get academic credit for the project.
This year teams from Canada, Mexico, India, Japan, the United Kingdom and Venezuela competed, along with the teams from U.S. universities. Russell works with the program because he can see the results in the ways the students grow and learn. By the time they finish in FSAE competition, the students can solve problems in a team environment and know how to work under tight time constraints, thus enabling them to transition to industry or graduate school easily.
One 2011 team member who just returned from the competition Jaik Ortiz says, "Most teams aren't doing anything wrong as a team or with the design of the car, but that is almost always something that can be done better. We have to design, analyze, build, test and confirm what we want to get out of the car. We also have to support ourselves through sponsorships that we get and keep track of our accounting to make sure we have the funds to spend."
The 2010 students have one more competition at the University of Texas-Arlington next week before the racing season is over. Fifteen universities, with 35 cars, and 111 drivers make this a very large, but fun event.
Russell thinks the next year will be even more interesting. He has 33 students enrolled in the 2011 project, and they are already moving into the build stage for their car. They will work on their car through the fall and spring semesters and race it next summer.
For pictures of the team and event visit: 2010 UNM FSAE.
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