August 17, 2007

Engineering students build formula-style race car

All is ready at the residence hall dining commons, courtesy of assistant director Mark Lewandowski and his crew. Emir Jose Marcari, Dean of the Sacramento State College of Engineering, and Michael Bell, an engineering student, discuss construction of a formula-style car built by students in the college.

For some Sacramento State students, the road to success is an actual road, and it’s up to them to build their own vehicle to traverse it.

Each year, members of the university’s Society of Automotive Engineers car club build a race car and test theoretical engineering principles learned in class on an actual track against other college SAE teams.

“The idea is to help college-age students understand the intricacies of the automobile and internal combustion,” says Emir Jose Macari, dean of the College of Engineering. “They take what they’re learning in their thermodynamics and mechanical engineering classes, apply it and see what happens as they modify it.”

The open-wheel, formula one-style car is built according to specifications and guidelines provided by the Society of Automobile Engineers in a 100-page rule book. Students are required to design their vehicle and build the majority of it from the ground up. Some parts, such as the engine, tires and brakes, can be purchased, though.

“We could actually build the engine, but it would take time and money, so it’s not worth it,” says team member Michael Bell, a sophomore engineering major who decided to attend Sacramento State in part because of the car project. “During a tour of the campus they were working on the car and that sold me.”

Although cars must adhere to specifications, the rules are written to allow students to be creative in the design and build of their cars. “Every part has to work together,” Bell says. “If the design process is not good, then we’re just slapping parts on the car.”

“It’s a very difficult project,” Macari says. “Think about building a car yourself from scratch. Fortunately, there is a learning curve. Most students join the team as freshmen, and by the time they get to be juniors or seniors, they become one of the leads.”

While the car is an exercise in automotive theory, it is also a high revving machine, capable of going 65 mph. “It’s not Formula One speed, but we don’t want the kids to get hurt, so the speed is limited to 65 mph by SAE,” Macari says.

SAE also limits the amount teams can spend. Team spending is capped at $25,000, but Bell says they spent half of that to build theirs.

To help fund their project, students are required to develop a business plan and seek financial support. “We do provide some seed money, but they also need external funding,” Macari says.

“At one point we ran out of funding and we were just stuck. We couldn’t really do anything,” Bell says.

They got unstuck with a little more seed money and parts donated from local businesses, but they faced another challenge – time.

“The car building process begins in the fall, but as happens, sometimes things are left to the end,” says Macari. “They scrambled to get it completed during the last month, and they were working on it almost every night.”

“We got on each others nerves sometimes,” Bell admits.

Despite the problems, they had a car ready to take to the track. In June, the team participated in the annual SAE Formula competition at the California Speedway in Fontana. They competed against 80 other college teams from around the world and placed 16th, topping bigger names including Stanford, UC Berkeley, Ohio State University, Brigham Young University and Dartmouth College.

“When we found out we beat those other schools, our first reaction was actually disappointment at their level of competitiveness,” said Bell. “I’m sure they spent a lot of time building their vehicles, but it didn’t seem like they spent a lot of time testing them. Because we fell behind on finances to build our car, we felt we weren’t able to put our best into it. We felt good though that we had the drive as engineers. Imagine what we can do if we give 100 percent.”

When the fall semester begins, the team will begin building a new race car for next year’s competition, and Bell already has a few ideas.

“We’ll make it lighter and lower and give it more acceleration,” he says. “We’ll also make sure we are on a better timeline. I want the car done and built by winter break.”

For more information on the residence hall living program, call (916) 278-6655. For media assistance, call Sacramento State’s Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156.