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Baja SAE team gears up for a big showing this spring

The 2017 WVU Tech SAE Baja team

WVU Tech’s Baja SAE project is one of the largest student-led efforts on campus. Each year, a team of engineering students spends their free time designing, building and racing a full-scale, buggy-style vehicle. That’s on top of the time the group spends raising tens of thousands of dollars and negotiating access to heavy equipment so they can built the thing.

It’s a busy life, but by all accounts, it’s a rewarding one.

Dr. Winnie Fu, professor of engineering technology programs at WVU Tech and advisor to the student chapter of SAE, said that the experience teaches students entire skillsets that will help them as they branch out into their careers.

She also said that the 2017 season is a “build year” for the team, since there are more underclassmen in the group than in previous years.

“It’s about increasing knowledge and skills. Analyzing what can be improved. Taking chances and experimenting. Learning as much as we can. By spending the time up front, learning, training and developing, I’m anticipating a very strong future contender team,” she said.

Noah Morrison, a mechanical engineering major from Huntington, West Virginia is a sophomore at Tech. He serves as the current vice president of the WVU Tech student chapter of SAE.

Morrison said the team doesn’t lack talent or passion, but that some resources – particularly access to heavy machining equipment – are harder to come by. The group works with local businesses and sponsors to carve out time on lathes and milling machines to save on costs. It’s also a great way to learn some new skills along the way.

The WVU Tech SAE Baja buggy powers through a puddle on the Tech Trail. "It takes general engineering skills, but it's also a lot of shop work. Things like coping tubes, welding and machine work with mills and lathes," he said. "A lot of engineering students have never touched a machine. They'll design a part that's wonderful on paper but it can't be made. Learning about these machines and what they can and can't do is helpful with becoming a good engineer.”

One of those integral devices is a five-axis milling machine that a sponsor in Beckley is allowing the team to use. The machine lets the team create custom parts from scratch.

“People gain real skills working with that kind of equipment,” said Zac Lockhart, Baja team captain and a sophomore mechanical engineering major from New Martinsville, West Virginia.

“We spent more than $9,000 dollars last year just on machining, so being able to work with a sponsor in Beckley with that five-axis machine definitely helps our budget and gives us a chance to learn some of those new skills.”

The team started fabrication in December after months of concept work and design. Once the frame is constructed, it's all hands on deck, putting together the vehicle as quickly as possible so the group can start testing and fine-tuning the build. 

Thomas Hughes is the current president of the SAE student chapter. The senior mechanical engineering student wants to go into a career in racing and has a particular fascination with composites; lightweight materials that can significantly decrease the overall weight of the vehicle.

"We’re using fiber composites. The fiber is lightweight and it's very strong. They give everyone the same 10-horsepower motor, so if it's as light as it can be, you can go faster than everybody else. It sounds simple but it requires a lot of thought in the design process to make it happen," he said.

The team skews younger this year, but that doesn’t mean they are waiting around for someone to show them what to do. Fu said she’s proud of how the group is banding together to address gaps in skill and teach one another new concepts.

“They are learning how to design and analyze vehicle components in Solidworks and many of the senior members are teaching necessary fabrication skills such as turning on lathes, milling and welding to junior members. As a result, I’m very pleased with what has happened so far,” she said.

“By coming together as a team, sharing their knowledge with each other, passing it onto new freshman team members, they are able to work together and move forward really well.”

The team will first race next month at the unsanctioned Winter Baja 2017 event in Houghton, Michigan. Last year, nearly 40 teams from throughout the country competed in the event. The group will race last year’s blue vehicle at Winter Baja in the hope of gaining some time behind the wheel.

That experience will come in handy this May as the team travels nearly 850 miles west to compete in Baja SAE Kansas. At the Kansas event, the new build – and the team’s year-long effort – will be put to the test.  

As of this writing, the new frame is almost complete. The team has started working on the composite body and is creating a new hold model to fit the frame design. A few students are looking to implement a new sway in the suspension and the team is considering an overhauled transmission.

The group hopes to be tearing up dirt in the new build by the end of March.

Read more about the team on the WVU Tech SAE webpage and follow their progress on Facebook.