[feature published on the USC Viterbi School of Engineering website June 2012]
It’s one week before the race. In USC's Parking Structure A, five guys are busy tightening hoses and connecting wires, building a Formula-style racecar. Music comes drifting out of their makeshift machine shop, built on top of six parking spaces, cordoned off by a chain link fence and a dirty blue tarp. You wouldn’t know it was there if you weren’t given directions.
The shop was set up about 15 years ago, and the SC Racing team is building their third car since 2008 to enter the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) competition. “This year, we want to keep it simple,” says Pablo Hernendez, a recent USC Viterbi mechanical engineering grad and lead engineer on the project. “A simpler design allows us to make every component work better.”
At Formula SAE, students compete to build the best prototype racecar. About 50 USC students total are signed up to help engineer and build the SC Racing vehicle, and they rotate through the shop, each doing their part according to their expertise and interests. About 12 of these students stick around through the yearlong process and are major contributors. Today, a week before this year’s competition in Lincoln, Nebraska, the car sits up on wooden horses, a web of metal in the shape of a dolphin’s nose with cords, hoses, and pedals hanging in the right places.
"We have been able to apply our knowledge we gained from our failures to build a stronger, faster, more reliable car this year," says Tyler Macklin, SC Racing PR chair.
Hernendez is looking over the car while three other students are fiddling with the engine. The outside shell of the car sits in the back of the shop, ready to be slid onto the car at the last minute. Under Hernandez’s lead, the students started designing the vehicle back in August using Solid Works, a computer simulation software that helped them decide where to put each part before it even arrived at the shop. Solid Works also helped them decide how strong certain parts needed to be, according to what forces would be acting upon them. Other software allowed them to test the hypothetical car’s down force and drag, and model the tire and suspension systems.
To get their blueprint right, they worked through the entire fall semester. Then, in January, it was finally time to build. One of the main goals for this year’s team was to fashion better driving controls. For the gear-shifting mechanism, they hand-fabricated two paddle-shifters — like you’d see in a Ferrari — and attached them just behind the steering wheel, so the drivers don’t have to take a hand off the wheel to shift gears. They also molded a more secure seat and left more room for extending the legs towards the brakes.
Another main goal was to make this year’s car much lighter than last year’s. The Formula SAE competition limits the cars to 100 horsepower engines; so the lighter you make your car, the faster it goes. Hernandez and his crew decided to go with a steel tubular space frame, a F4 Honda sport bike engine, and hollow steel uprights (that attach the frame to the wheels). Last year’s car housed thick, heavy, aluminum uprights that weighed it down and the resulting car weighed 511 pounds to this year’s 450 pounds.
Other teams opt for a carbon fiber frame, which is basically a really thick shell, devoid of steel bars entirely, paired with a smaller engine. These cars are exceptionally light but incredibly expensive. And, speed is not the only factor in determining who wins the Formula SAE competition.
What makes the competition different from a drag race, a land race, or a Formula One race is that the judges take into account things like cost effectiveness, manufacturing feasibility, and design philosophy as well as speed and handling. Since the competition is for students, it’s meant to prep future engineers for the real-world experience of building a prototype vehicle. So, to win, the USC students actually traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska with the car will have to be able to explain to a judge why the car was designed and built like it was.
Their hopes are high. “We hope to be one of the top teams on and off the track,” says Tyler Makin, SC Racing PR chair. “We have been able to apply our knowledge we gained from our failures to build a stronger, faster, more reliable car this year.”
Teams come from all over the world to compete at Formula SAE. Representatives from big car manufacturers like GM, Chrysler, and Ford are often spotted milling around, scouting for future employees. According to the SC engineers who have attended in past years, the racing teams from the UK, Germany, and the Midwest United States always impress. Detroit area teams always have a huge budget, lots of volunteers, and finish a first draft of their cars in January as opposed to June.
The USC car was built on a budget of $15,000, raised entirely by students, a tribute to the self-sufficient nature of the project. USC Viterbi faculty advisor Stan Settles and faculty sponsor Geoffrey Shifflet lent a spare amount of guidance. Largely, though, the students didn’t need it. They already learned what they needed to know from their classes, and, as always, they use each other as mentors in the building process.
Veterans of the SC Racing team know how it goes—how to design for minimal drag and where to look for supplies. And, they teach the newbies. “There’s a lot of camaraderie in our group,” says Luke Heisinger, a dedicated engineering major. Camaraderie helps them get through the trials and mishaps of amateur mechanics. Nobody likes packing wheel bearings. Nobody likes fastening the fuel line. Coby Hartman, lead chassis engineer, recalls fastening the most recent one. “The wire mesh of the hose scrapes your fingers raw and then you attach it. Then you run the engine, only to have it come loose again and spray you in the face.”
Last year, lead engineer Hernandez literally wrecked the car during one of their test runs. The resulting car, nicknamed “Tammy,” fared pretty well at competition—it ranked 57 out of 80 overall entries. Really, it’s just a miracle they made it.
This year’s car will go for it’s first spin sometime in the next several days, and it’s looking pretty solid. Of course, like Settles says: “a racecar is never done.”
After the competition he’s waited all year for, which takes place just a month after his graduation from USC, Hernandez will begin to pursue a career as a professional automotive engineer. He has always loved cars; in fact, his first word was “car”, so it’s almost predestined. Heisinger also foresees a career as a professional automotive engineer. But, other students are just in it for the experience of building something from start to finish.
By taking the time to design a working, potentially marketable piece of machinery, the students have gained valuable job experience. And, of course, building is fun. “The connection of brain to hands when you actually build something tangible—you get to hold the final product and say, ‘Ah,’” says Settles. “ You can really have something to get excited about.”