College students involved in racing
This is the time of year that I start racking up the Frequent Flyer miles.
I have an announcing gig at the CART race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course next weekend, which means taking a red-eye to Columbus on Thursday night. Unfortunately, that will make me miss the USAC Sprint Car show at Champion Speedway. Traditionally, this has been one of the best-attended shows at the track for the past several years. Local Sprint Car star Amy Barnes will be competing with what promises to be a full field of fast and powerful sprinters, so make sure you get there early to get a seat.
The upside of traveling is that you get to meet a lot of interesting people.
Last week I ran into a young man while waiting for a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. I noticed that he had a polo shirt on proclaiming him to be a member of the University of Michigan Racing Team. Since I wasn’t aware that major colleges were fielding racing teams, I asked him about it.
His name is Ronald Grover, and he’s going into his Senior year in Mechanical Engineering at Michigan. A number of universities build racecars and compete at an annual event held in the Pontiac Silverdome. The Engineering students build Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) open wheel racecars,
powered by motorcycle engines of 300cc displacement.
They design and refine everything on the cars from engine intake and exhaust systems to suspension and shocks, to aerodynamics. They even undertake the business side of racing,
getting sponsorships to fund the teams and doing PR for those sponsors.
Auto manufacturers and performance component companies are obviously the primary sources for sponsorship.
The teams must build a new car every year, and they use what they learned the previous years and refine it, just like Formula One, CART, and NASCAR teams do. Weight reduction, increased horsepower, better fuel mileage, improved handling and better aerodynamics (reduced drag, increased downforce), are the
primary areas of concentration. Driver training is another big factor.
Students try out for the position, and the fastest ones get the job. Usually students with some motorcycle or go-kart experience are the ones that find themselves in the cockpit for the competition. Grover hasn’t driven one of the cars himself, but plans to take a spin in this year’s car, since it’s his senior year.
The competition is not wheel-to-wheel, but racing against the clock in a variety of time trials. Points are awarded for design innovations and excellence as well as for performance in the trials.
Grover’s particular assignment is the engine air intake. The Michigan team has tried turbocharging, other teams have tried supercharging, but they have found that normally aspirated engines seem to perform better overall.
The intake he designed for the normally aspirated engine provides almost identical power to the former turbocharged version, with a considerable saving in overall weight, not to mention simplicity.
Judges for the competition come from major auto manufacturers. Planning for the next year’s event begins almost immediately after the checkered flag waves. Students donate their time to their school’s race team (it is not part
of the regular curriculum), and most of them hope it will lead to a career in the automotive industry. Grover told me that a former member of the Michigan team is now employed by Toyota Racing Development.
Participation in the program is a big plus on a student’s resume if he wants to get into any sort of performance-related automotive position. Of 2000 or so Mechanical Engineering undergraduates at Michigan, Grover estimates that about ten
percent are involved in the Formula SAE program, with about forty-five percent of those actually working on race car design and fabrication.
I don’t know if the University of Nevada has such a program in its Mechanical Engineering department, but I’m going to try and find out. If so, I’ll try to do a feature article on the program and keep local race fans apprised of their progress. If not, maybe we could drum up some interest.
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal’s motorsports columnist.