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Baja SAE team heads south for first of three competitions

Baja Team 2016

On a chilly April Wednesday, members of the WVU Tech Society of Automotive Engineers Baja Buggy team packed up the racing buggy they’ve spent months building from scratch and set off for Cookeville, Tennessee for the first of three spring semester competitions.

Starting on Thursday, April 14, the group will spend four days putting that buggy to the test in everything from braking, suspension and maneuverability events to hill climbs and a four-hour endurance race. They’ll also have to justify their design choices in a business-style presentation.

After months of fundraising, design and construction, the team will be showing off their most ambitious build yet. For Dr. Winnie Fu, engineering technology professor and advisor to the group, this year’s built is the most advanced she’s seen in her years overseeing the project at WVU Tech.

“This vehicle has the most engineering it’s ever seen, and so the team hopes to bring home their best finish ever. Because of that, they have been working around the clock on weekends and many evenings. It is even difficult for me, as the advisor, to comprehend the amount of work and dedication that has gone into this year’s build,” she said.

For this year’s buggy, weight was a primary challenge. Since each buggy is required to run on the same 10-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine, weight becomes a primary barrier to higher performance. A decrease in weight means the engine has less to move. As senior mechanical engineering major Corey Hall puts it, “the less weight we have in the buggy, the more power we can put to the ground.”

Hall said that the top competitors often weight in between 300 and 350 pounds. Last year, the Tech buggy sat at 400 pounds. The year before, it weighed a full 550 pounds. This year, however, the team has worked diligently to simplify the buggy and bring that number down.

Team member Vicente Porcar said he thinks they may have built the lightest buggy in school history.

“I can tell you it can be lifted from the ground by just two people. We made big efforts in fundraising that allowed us to buy better and lighter parts. In the design stage, we kept the buggy as small and light as possible. Even the tabs used for the mounting of body panels have been analyzed and reduced in size and weight to meet our goal,” he said.

The team also focused on increasing maneuverability and stability. They narrowed the frame, shortened the wheelbase and extended suspension components for an overall wider, more stable build.

Team members also built many of the buggy’s components from scratch, including student-designed and built custom front and rear suspensions, custom shocks and a custom one-speed transmission. Team even members learned how to cast aluminum to build their own lightweight parts, dressed the buggy with advanced composite bodywork and outfitted the vehicle with two-way communications and a data acquisition system.

“This year we’ve made more parts than ever before,” said Hall. “We’re making revisions and optimizations to our design from last year. There’s been a big push to build things that in previous years we would have just bought.”

The group is confident in the buggy they’ve put together. At this stage, they’ve put the vehicle through rigorous testing (check out a video of the buggy in action) and they’re anxious to see what it can do in Tennessee.

“The team is extremely excited to be running three competitions this year. They feel that this vehicle will be a contender in all events this year. The team has spent countless our on this vehicle, and is ready to show what they are capable of,” said the organization’s president and team leader, Jason Browning.

Browning said that the team’s advances were enabled in large part by the project’s sponsors. One of the buggy project’s major hurdles is cost, and the team spends time working with sponsors to use professional equipment, secure construction materials, employ machining services and secure funding for parts and travel.

“All of our sponsors are extremely important to us and we couldn’t do what we do without each one of them,” said Browning. “The biggest benefit to sponsors is the opportunity to directly invest in future Southern West Virginia engineers. Their sponsorship permits students to gain engineering knowledge and learn the hands-on skills that Tech is so famous for. Over time, they will see these benefits pay dividends when they hire Tech students to work for them. It is an investment in Tech students and West Virginia.”

After Tennessee, the group will compete in California in mid-May and New York in June.

“We are excited and anxious about Tennessee since it is the first competition and the first time we get to test our buggy against others buggies,” said Porcar. “After Tennessee, we come back, retune for California and shoot for the top places again, but this time with a better idea of what needs to improve. After California, we should have our best version of the buggy to run in Rochester.”

For the group’s seniors, this year’s competition series marks the culmination of years of working on the project. It was also a valuable chance for students like Browning to pass on their knowledge and experience to those who will take the reins in the coming years.

“It has been very exciting watching the team grow and become stronger over these last four years,” said Browning. “It’s unbelievable what we have been able to accomplish. My first year there were four of us with a shoestring budget. Now we are 17 strong with the potential to be a top contender. This goes to show that with lots of hard work and dedication to something that anything is possible.”

Follow the team’s progress throughout the season and check out photos on the group’s Facebook page. For photos from this year’s build, visit WVU Tech on Flickr.

This year’s buggy sponsors are Toyota, March Westin, the Leonard C. Nelson College of Engineering and Sciences at WVU Tech, the WVU Tech Student Government Association, Constellium, Brickstreet Insurance, NGK Spark Plugs, American Electric Power, the Crossroads Mall, James Giuliani, Global Procurement, Aircon Engineering, West Virginia Manufacturing Solutions, the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing, Snap-on, Jarvis Hardware, P3, QA1 and Tilton Engineering.