A Formula for Real-World Experience
Student engineers soak up the lessons from an army of auto-industry and racing volunteers at Formula SAE Michigan.
On a hazy, cool day in late May, a massive throng of thousands of collegiate engineers and hundreds of volunteers descended on Michigan International Speedway to put the teams’ engineering, wrenching and problem-solving skills to the test at Formula SAE Michigan 2023. For newcomers like the team of students from Liberty University, the scope can be overwhelming.
The competition calls for teams of college students to design and build a formula-style racecar. Then they’re judged on design, cost, presentation and a series of dynamic events that include acceleration and brake tests, an autocross, and an endurance session.
Inspection: Woes and learning
Liberty and Shelton Ware, its team leader, were being put through another wringer of a technical inspection.
Virtually everything at Formula SAE is about safety. Before cars can even get near the dynamic events, cars must pass rigorous inspections that see them pulled apart and examined in detail by safety stewards. As Liberty endured another of many inspections (teams can go through inspection as many times as needed to until the deadline), all eyes were on Nick Pakledinaz, a systems control engineer for Stellantis. Pakledinaz had an eagle eye for any issues ─ right down to washers. Going over Liberty’s car, he finished a long feedback session by voicing what appeared to be a simmering frustration with many teams that day. “I don’t know what’s gotten into teams this year, whether it’s lightweighting or what, but washers, washers, washers,” he said. He emphasized that the best-designed car means nothing ─ and could mean something really bad ─ if it falls apart before the end of the competition.
Liberty’s Ware was visibly focused on all the feedback he was getting from Pakledinaz. One conversation centered on how a cross-member at the nose of the car could be brought into compliance with a safety requirement that mandates it be a certain distance from the intrusion plate. Another, which was more of a back-and-forth, was about the requirement for abrasion-resistant hoses and wires at places where moving parts might grind or a stationary part might rub the track surface.
Matt Wolfe, SAE Media assistant editor and a Formula SAE veteran as a team member and a volunteer, said that it’s normal for first-year teams to struggle, and that for some, the dream of competition dies at the final inspection deadline. For Liberty’s part, senior mechanical engineering major Ware said the learning curve was steep, but not unfriendly. “It has been a humbling experience to be sure, but everyone has been super nice,” he said, adding that he was quickly learning that the inspection process was both a great learning experience and also a chance to develop skills in negotiating.
Teams of specialists
The entry from the University of Illinois team stood out due to the side slats on the vertical members of its rear wing. Only a few other teams included this design. SAE Media stopped by their paddock to ask about this design choice. Sid Sudhir, a junior aerospace engineering major and the team’s composites lead, said the louvers let some of the high-pressure air dump to the side of the car, instead of going up and over. “We have a very high angle of attack and are on the CL max point (the highest coefficient of lift a surface can generate),” he said. “At each parameter sweep, we’ve set for maximum downforce.” Riya Joshi, a senior in mechanical engineering, said the team also accounted for extreme gusts in their design. As for the wing’s construction, Blaine Hesler, graduating senior systems engineering major, said it was water-jetted carbon fiber. “It is T700 plain weave,” he said, “which gives us good strength and stiffness and low weight.” The previously mentioned washers notwithstanding, weight matters. Competitive cars at Formula SAE tend to weigh less than 440 lbs (200 kg).
One truth that was underscored talking to the Illinois team: Teams would have little success without specialists on various systems of the car. So, there are students who solely work on (while pitching in on other areas) suspension, powertrain, brakes, aerodynamics and more. During SAE Media’s conversation with the Illini, a person came up and asked a question about brakes. “I’m just the aero guy,” replied Sudhir. “You need to talk to Collin [Meyer, the team’s electronics lead].” So the Formula SAE teams are analogs to their real-world counterparts on race teams or at OEMs.
Sudhir said the team knew it had two high-level drivers, and they tested extensively. “We like to think we’re an above-average testing team,” he said, saying the team used copious amounts of data to hit the target of “neutral steering under most conditions. We wanted the center of pressure to be more rearward to prevent oversteer at high speeds.” Our interview was interrupted when someone exclaimed “This is really important, everyone. The pizza is here.”
The value of PR
The teams don’t just draw engineering students. Hannah Kennedy, a senior PR major and the Oklahoma State team’s co-lead for outreach and social media, said that while she worked to gain the respect of her mostly male teammates, said she felt accepted after everyone began to understand her value in bringing eyeballs ─ and particularly funding ─ to the program. “Now I feel like I’m part of a brotherhood,” she said. “I feel so supported by my community.”
And speaking of funding, it was clear that a) funding matters and b) one can’t really make assumptions about funding merely based the name of the university on the racecar.
Alex Butman, a mechanical engineering major who was graduating from UCLA, said while the team isn’t on a shoestring budget, it is not swamped with backers, either. “We really don’t have a ton of sponsors,” he said. As part of their PR efforts, Michael Leggesse, the Bruins’ media committee chair and a senior sociology major, was filming a documentary of the team’s efforts at MIS. And while Butman bemoaned the price of track time quoted by one of Southern California’s racetrack’s most frequently used for testing – by everyone from OEMs to pro racing teams – Leggesse said they even found difficulty even getting permission to film the car on campus. “We were trying to get permission to film the car on the sidewalk on campus,” he said, continuing that the solution campus officials agreed to was that the car had to be unpowered and manually pushed for the shots they wanted. All over the paddock, it seemed like last minute solutions were the order of the day.
Underscoring the cooperative spirit among teams, there was a steady stream of announcements about teams seeking help, often for seemingly mundane items that were no doubt critical to passing inspection. “Lawrence Tech is in need of one square foot of gold foil tape for a fuel pump,” one such announcement said. Another: “Purdue University, your parts are ready at the machine shop.” The on-site shop staffed by professionals is Johnny on the spot for broken items teams don’t have backups for. UCLA’s Butman recounted a situation the team faced at the 2022 competition, in which he found a quick solution for an ill-fitting brake pedal attachment. “I cut the handle off one of our screwdrivers,” he said. “And it’s still in the car.”
Physical safety testing
Once cars pass inspection, rigorous dynamic tests begin. One test directly related to driver safety is the egress test. The test requires that a driver who begins in full safety gear (helmet, suit, gloves), with hands on the wheel, must be able to remove the steering wheel, disconnect the harness, and have “feet on pavement” in less than five seconds. Bradley University’s driver, Senior mechanical engineering major Jordan Tatgenhorst, made it out in 3.9 seconds.
Tatgenhorst, a tig-welding fabricator for Bradley before driving, said she also assisted in the build of other areas of the car and, from interactions with SAE volunteers, said she was already gathering ideas to improve the team’s car for 2024.
Experience and recruiters
Over at the autocross course, which occupies a mostly flat section of the MIS apron, teams that had passed inspection and all their safety tests were lining up to get a few runs in ahead of the official competetion. Gary Godula, a longtime FSAE volunteer and director at large for Detroit Region SCCA, said the competition teaches essential workplace skills. “This is really an immersion into project management,” he said. “But more than that, the real benefit of being here on site is recruitment – the access to recruiters,” he said. Godula, who was in charge of the test area, said the best teams come in with a plan. “I ask every team ‘what is your test plan?’ Are you just scuffing the tires, practicing acceleration? Understand why you’re practicing,” he semi-shouted to be heard over the din of a car on the course. “If you’re going to break something, break it here while you have time to fix it.” As we talked with him, another volunteer was going over the test area’s safety rules, which included a stipulation that – even though there were concrete safety barriers – no acceleration takes place when the car is pointed at the team prep area.
Godula relishes being able to teach young engineers about precision when it comes to crisis maintenance. “It’s like, how fast can I teach them to change out a broken rod end without losing their alignment,” he said, “by counting the threads, not moving anything you don’t have to, and measure everything.”
When the scores were tallied Illinois won the competition with 863.3 points out of a possible 1,000. It is the team's second consecutive win. Finishing in second and third were the Wroclaw University of Technology from Poland and Ohio State University. Liberty University and Bradley University finished 98th and 108th respectively.
For volunteer, team or other information, go to the Formula SAE center .