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Hornet Racing Team is on the fast track


Racing team members, from left, Jon Oakleaf, Blanca Ruelas, Eric Brummer, Ryan Hart, Dan Ciobanu, Stephanie Palmer, Allan Camyre, Terry Kay and Bob Rose.

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Ride along with the Hornet racing team, participating in Autocross with the Sacramento Sports Car Club of America at the Stockton Fairgrounds in July: and

The Hornet Racing Formula SAE Team is yet another example of Sacramento State preparing students for the work force.

For the past two decades, dedicated groups of Sac State engineering students have applied their diverse skills toward creating a Formula SAE race car to compete in collegiate events. Created to enhance the learning experience beyond the classroom, Hornet Racing is gaining momentum.

The Society of Automotive Engineering International provides “Collegiate Design Competitions that put classroom training into action by challenging students to design, build and test the performance of a real vehicle in a competitive environment. SAE Collegiate Design competitions draw more than 4,500 students from 500 universities on six continents.”

Each year, the Hornet team designs and builds a racing car to Formula SAE’s exacting specifications. The dozen or so students who stay the extracurricular course spend upward of 50 hours per week on the project.

Stephanie Palmer, the team treasurer on track to graduate this year, is particularly proud of the car’s showing. This year saw Sac State’s entry finish about midway among the 75 to 80 teams competing at the Fontana Auto Club Speedway. The HR2011, a four-cylinder fuel-injected motor, was put through its paces for structural integrity, acceleration, endurance and other facets of performance. “We competed well against student teams from Canada, Germany, Mexico and other California schools,” she says.

Not a bad showing given that final touches on the HR2011 were completed a couple of minutes before the Fontana competition. Dan Ciobanu, a driver and the team’s power train lead engineer, recalls the car breaking a couple of parts on a test run an hour before deadline. “The San Jose State pit crew helped us weld the parts and our car was ready to roll, just under the wire.” Such is the “excellent camaraderie among the teams,” he says.

The Hornets’ success flows from team continuity. Palmer has two years’ experience. Ditto for Jon Oakleaf, team president and project manager; Terry Kay, vice president; and Nick Marchiano, 3D modeling and simulation director. Ryan Hart, a driver and technical director, has worked five years on professional racing teams. Ciobanu joined the team last year, but he has built and raced cars since he was 15. All six students are mechanical engineering majors and bring different skill sets to the team.

Not everyone on the team is an engineering major, Palmer says. “We are casting about for students in other disciplines to strengthen the mix.” Kay concurs, stressing the importance of bringing business-savvy students aboard because the team wants to market itself; building a race car cannot be done on the cheap. The team is seeking even more sponsors.

On Aug. 6, the Hornet Formula SAE team had a vendor booth at the California Automobile Museum's third annual Car Cruise. The event, culminating at the Fulton Avenue business district, featured 500 cars and 5,000-plus spectators. Oakleaf notes, “We got to show our car off to a lot of people. We had a lot of kids get in the car and pose for pictures for their parents; it was a big hit.” The car was also on display at the State Fair, and team members plan to showcase it further.

The team is deciding whether to compete in the four remaining rounds of the Sacramento Cup under the aegis of the Sports Car Club of America. Next comes two endurance contests at the San Joaquin Fairgrounds, capped off by The SCCA Sacramento Cup awards banquet at the Marriott.

But a brand-new school year means starting from square one and building HR2012. “This year should be fun,” Kay says, “because our team has a wealth of experience.”  Noting that the lone team member to graduate is pursuing a master’s degree at Sac State, Kay adds, “We have already done some preliminary design work.” But the heavy lifting begins once the fall semester starts.

The team is looking to compete in Lincoln, Neb., come June. This international contest is one of the most prestigious venues. The competition is stiff, with top-flight teams vying for honors. This year saw a collaboration between Oregon State and a German university that produced a vehicle that competed this year in Fontana. Honda is affiliated with a Japanese university that competes each year.

But the challenge doesn’t faze Sac State’s team, which is essentially a student-run endeavor. Aki Kumagai, professor of mechanical engineering, is the team adviser. He and other faculty members periodically lend a hand with specific problems, but these students definitely know what they are doing. “They are truly students in a class of their own,” Kumagai says, “presenting their work in front of professionals in the automobile industry.  What they experience through this project is closest to what they will experience in the real engineering world.”

That know-how is why they are told to bring their resumes to the competitions. Palmer’s experience prompted Snell Memorial Foundation to hire her; she tests motorcycle and bike helmets. Her teammates are similarly positioned to parlay their engineering degrees and practical skills into positions with the automotive industry.

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– Alan Miller