A vehicle for fun

While struggling to balance the pressures of college life, a team ofabout 10 students invests a few additional hours into constructing andracing cars called “mini bajas.”

Sponsored by the USF Society of Automotive Engineers, the mini baja teamcombines engineering with driving skills to compete with schools aroundthe world.

In Baja, Calif., people race cars, that get their name from the city,about 1,000 miles across the desert. USF’s team constructs a miniatureform of these mini bajas, vehicles that are similar to a go-cart or dunebuggy.

The main purpose of building the mini baja vehicle is to design afictitious product that not only drives fast and has an appealing lookbut also works well and is capable of being mass-produced at $3,000apiece. According to Kevin Edwards, the team captain, USF’s mini bajahas about $2,500 invested in it.

The current baja is the second car USF has built. The first vehicle ison display in the Kopp Building and was too heavy and difficult to workon, according to Edwards.

“We took what we learned from the first car and applied it tothis one,” Edwards said.

The team builds the entire vehicle, excluding the motor, and the currentbaja has more than 3,000 hours invested into it.

They began the design last summer, started construction in November, andthe baja was ready just in time for the April race. The members workedon the car three to four days per week.

“We do this all ourselves,” Ellen Johnston, team member and Web siteconstructor, said.

The Briggs and Stratton engine company gives baja competitors a10-horsepower engine, the equivalent to a lawnmower engine, every otheryear. This is the only item on the baja that is supplied, and it is notto be modified for competitions. As opposed to paying the normal cost of$500 for the engine, the teams are only required to pay the $100shipping fees.

Funding for the baja comes from Student Government, the College ofEngineering and sponsors such as the SAE. However, most of the money tobuy parts for the car is generated from the baja team selling hamburgersduring the school year, according to Edwards.

USF’s baja has five speeds and a pull cord which starts the engine. Thecar also has rear suspension, in which both wheels move up and downtogether. The car can drive up to 30 miles per hour, although Edwardssaid this speed is normally more than the team uses. It is equipped withtwo sets of brakes: the hand brake, which controls the front brakes, andthe foot brake, which monitors the back brakes. Edwards said thecombination of both brakes allows the baja to be maneuvered more easily,and if one set fails, the other can be used as a backup.

The current baja weighs 410 pounds, as opposed to last year’s model,which weighed 550 pounds. Edwards said they try to keep the baja assimple as possible in construction due to cost and the fact that thereis more to break.

“We keep it simple and keep it running, which actually makes it faster,”Edwards said.

In the third year of competing, the mini baja team competed intwo out of the three races designed to test the cars. Baja West tookplace in Manhattan, Kan., and the Midwest event was held in Troy, Ohio.Next year they plan to enter all three competitions.

Competitors in the races travel from places such as Brazil, Canada andMexico, and the team said the bleachers were full of people who came towatch.

“It’s good for USF to get out there and compete,” Scott Dukes, a teammember, said.

Edwards agreed.

“(This) puts USF on the map in a very different competition series,” hesaid.

Each of the three days of a competition has a different judging event.According to Edwards, a lot of the judging does not involve the car butsuch things as safety precautions.

The first day of judging is strictly for safety rules and is called”Static Events Day.” Professional engineers judge the entire car, whichEdwards said is difficult to pass. However, there have never been anymajor injuries related to the mini bajas.

“Safety is a big factor,” he said.

Drivers are required to wear helmets and gloves, and the car isconstructed of a padded roll cage in case the vehicle flips.

Crew member Dave Eckols said he was driving the baja in a hill climbduring one race when the vehicle flipped backwards down the hill. Hesustained no injuries, although the crew has nicknamed him “FlipperDave.”

“It felt like a Disney World ride,” Eckols said.

The second day is the “Dynamic Events” day, which includes coursesdesigned to test maneuverability, acceleration and a hill climb. At someevents, the mini bajas are chained to a bus to see how fast it can betowed. At the Baja East event, there is even a course that tests themini baja’s ability to maneuver itself in the water. The tires are usedto propel the car, which floats on a raft composed of Styrofoam andaluminum.

On the third day, the endurance race takes place.

“That’s what mini baja is really all about,” Edwards said.

During this event, the cars drive for four hours on a track (roughly 80miles) and the bajas must climb over tree stumps, logs, huge rocks and”mud that’s as soupy as anything,” Edwards said.

Even if your car is not very fast, any team can still do well, accordingto Edwards.

“They design the tracks to tear up our cars,” he said. “They do that onpurpose.”

During the Midwest Baja race last year, the USF team experienced acatastrophic event. The mini baja?s axle snapped in two due to amachining error.

“Most people would have given up at that point,” Edwards said.

After Edwards drove the car off the track on three wheels, the teamworked to weld an additional hub back onto the old one, and in 80minutes they were back in the race.

“As soon as a car breaks down, you see a lot of good engineering,” Dukesaid.

Despite the setback, the USF team came inn 42nd place in the race.

“The whole idea is to figure out who has the best car,” Edwards said.”If 90 percent of the cars finished, it wouldn?t tell you much.”

Edwards said USF’s team is expected to be No. 1 next year.

The team has begun to plan designs for an additional mini baja to bebuilt in the fall, concentrating specifically on making this vehiclelight in weight.

The mini baja team said they are always looking for new members to help,and anyone can join, not only engineering majors. Other aspects of theteam include photographing events and watching for potential problemsduring a race.

“It does take up a lot of your time,” Johnston said.

But the efforts and time spent with the mini baja are worth it toeveryone involved.