It was a bumpy road, but that was to be expected.
This summer, the NMU Society of Automotive Engineers Baja Team competed in the 2008 SAE Baja Montreal Race. And, despite battling knee-deep mud, table-top jumps, and a repair list a mile long, the team can’t wait to do it again.
It was the third time in four years that NMU had sent a team to compete with their dune-buggy style racer. The race this year featured 122 teams from universities around the world. This year’s team consisted of a new advisor and all new student members: Dr. Robert Marlor of the Engineering Technology Department, Mike Brunetti, Jesse Nye, Doug Maves, John Sanchez, and Alex Rae.
The team started designing the car in September 2007, with their eyes first on February 16, 2008, the date of a Baja race at Michigan Tech. That race was supposed to be a warm-up before the Baja Montreal Race in June, which was the most important race of the year.
The team of five divided the labor and set about fabricating the car, from frame design to suspension, steering, and transmission. Rather than use a transmission similar to those found in snow mobiles, which are the standard transmissions used in about 95 percent of all Baja cars, the NMU team decided to take a risk and try a hydraulic transmission system, like those found in riding lawn mowers or industrial tractors. It was an innovative design, and a risk, but they thought it could give them an edge.
The night before they were supposed to leave for the race, however, they learned that their transmission pump had failed. They stayed up all night trying to fix it, but when 6 a.m. rolled around, they decided they had better give up on the first race and focus on the next instead.
“We took a long break after that,” Brunetti said. “We were pretty bummed. We had put in about two months straight working on this thing.”
But they didn’t lose sight of their goal. Maves’s reaction was, “What’s next?” They knew the hydraulic transmission wouldn’t work, so they tried a dirt bike transmission instead. Ultimately, they settled on the snow mobile transmission.
After a few more months of fine tuning, the team embarked on the 19-hour drive that brought them to Magog, a ski resort town outside of Montreal, in time for the June 11-14 event. But that wasn’t the end of their troubles. Before the four-part competition, each of the 122 cars had to pass technical inspections.
“We were rookies,” Sanchez says. “We were shocked at how much detail they went into in inspections. There were hundreds of items.”
“They checked to make sure you had twisted the safety wires in the right direction to secure your nuts and bolts,” Nye said. “Only nine teams out of the 122 made it through on the first try.”
Because of delays with the inspections, the NMU team missed some of the early events of the competition. The first event they participated in was Suspension and Traction. Sanchez was selected as driver for the one-lap race, and he was the first to get a taste of the mud.
“The course was made to break the buggies,” Sanchez says. “You had to crawl over rocks, up steep hills, and go through deep mud. There was a lot of mud when I was trying to cross a river, and I got hung up. The tires were spinning, and the belt was spinning, and it burnt the clutches up, so we didn’t finish. It was really cool, though. Our tires were aggressive ATV tires, and they were flinging that mud like ten feet in the air when they were trucking through.”
And so, once again, the transmission proved to be troublesome. As Marlor points out, this was the first time any NMU team had tried to use the standard transmission, and it still wasn’t equipped to handle the course.
But the team was able to find plenty of help in repairing their car for the main event: the endurance race.
“I was impressed with the degree of camaraderie among teams in the pits,” Marlor says. “It was great sportsmanship.
Brunetti says, “It took about ten minutes to find replacement parts.”
“Some teams even helped us weld,” Sanchez says.
Those on-the-fly repairs in the pits proved to be good experience, because in the endurance race, the course once again got the better of the car. The goal was to complete as many laps around the course as possible in four hours.
The first lap was uneventful. But when Maves took the wheel and went over the table-top jump during the second lap, the steering shaft broke, and the steering wheel came off. The car had to be towed back to the pits and welded back together. Each lap brought new problems, but the team was able to complete four laps in between repairs to the car. The team finished 89th out of 122 in the endurance race and 99th overall.
Regardless of the results, the team members were happy. As Brunetti points out, after all of the testing around the Jacobetti Complex in the preceding months, the endurance race was the first opportunity they had to really drive the car and push its limits.
Next year, Brunetti says, the goal is to make at least the top 25 percent.
Sanchez says, “For how much we learned this time, we could compete in all the events, and all four hours of the endurance race. If we do that, how well we place will just come naturally.”
The NMU SAE Baja team is funded by a grant through NMU, as well as by its sponsors: Argonics, Fastenal, Team Tech Motor Sports, and Atlas Gear Company. The team is looking for new members. Those interested should contact Dr. Marlor at firstname.lastname@example.org.