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A wild and crazy ride

A mini-Baja car race is not an ordinary contest. There are 100-150 cars on the track at the same time speeding through trees, mud, rocks and water. The cars can malfunction, overcome flips and hit each other, all while each car is trying get to the finish line.

USF’s Society of Automotive Engineers builds and races mini-Baja cars that not only ride over rough terrain but are also amphibious and participate in these contests. On April 5, the group traveled to Orlando and competed against more than 100 international institutions of higher education in an all-terrain race, winning first place in the amphibious category.

Since the club began five years ago, members have attended competitions three times a year, one in the East, one in the West and one in the Midwest.

“Locations for the competitions change every year. This year, our East race was in Orlando, which just took place. The Midwest race was in Ohio, and the West race will be in Utah on May 8, 9 and 10,” said Christopher Chow, the student organization’s president.

The Society of Automotive Engineers faces the challenge of building a mini-Baja car from scratch every year. Some years, an old car is rebuilt and every component is reconditioned and updated as needed, Chow said.

Budget is always a concern to the organization.

“It’s really easy to spend money on race cars, and actually, most of our budget goes toward gas when we travel to competitions,” Chow said.

The organization, which is funded by Student Government, is the most funded engineering organization at USF, receiving a little less than $7,000 last year. They also receive a small amount of goods from corporate sponsors, such as Titan Tires who gives them free tires, Chow said.

“This year is the first year that we’ve gotten over $10,000 in funding between SG funds and gifts in kind from sponsors, and it’s made a difference. We had a good car this year,” said a five-year member Kevin Edwards.

The car the group has been racing this year has a top speed of almost 40 mph on land. The average speed during a race is between 15-25 mph, Chow said.

“Durability is the main thing in this type of race. If the car survives, it generally places well,” Edwards said. “To get to first place, you have to be fast and durable.”

The race in Orlando consisted of three days of competition. The first day entailed static events such as, car inspections and a question-and-answer session with all of the teams. The next day was comprised of dynamic events, such as breaking, water maneuverability and the rock crawl. The third day was the actual race, which had a mile-and-a-half long course on land and a one eighth of a mile course in the water, Chow said.

The last day’s race was an endurance test and teams had to complete as many laps around the track as possible in four hours. Chow said USF’s group completed seven laps, which were about halfway in the ranks.

An average lap for the team during the race, took 10 minutes. The rest of the time was spent fixing problems with the car, Edwards said.

“We had two belts pop during the race, and it was pretty much a miracle that we could fix it because we were out of belts,” Edwards said. “Luckily, one of our member’s dad had a connection to get a sprocket and chain in Orlando, and it got us back in the race — our next races we’ll run with a chain drive.”

Regardless of the team’s unexpected trouble, it still came in first in the amphibious portion of the competition. The team greatly improved from last year’s water competition in which it placed last.

“The club concentrated more on the vehicles’ water capabilities this year. We attached fenders to keep the water off of the engine and sealed the electronics on the motor, which makes the whole electrical system watertight,” Chow said. “We also installed a hydraulic jack to bring the back tires out of the water, which is something that nobody else had in Orlando.”

The optimal depth for the tires to be in the water is 20-30 percent. Because the other teams could not lift their rear tires to the appropriate level, they were at a disadvantage.

“We spent one third of the time in the water, and others less prepared spent about half of their time in the water,” said Edwards.

Different races require different things from the vehicle. The East competition is the only one of the three that the Society of Automotive Engineers attends that includes the amphibious portion of the race, Chow said.

Edwards said the Orlando race also required the teams to build a foam-filled aluminum float for their vehicles. The car weighed approximately 400 pounds plus the weight of the driver. The float has to be big enough to compensate for the weight.

The float built for this year’s competition weighed 80 pounds and covered the front, bottom, back and sides of the vehicle when put on. The only portion not covered was the tires.

“We try to get foam any place we can,” Chow said.

The organization has about 50 members, most of whom are in the College of Engineering. Building a race car takes them 3,000 – 4,000 man- hours to complete.

“A quarter of their time is spent designing the vehicle, another quarter is spent getting materials and half of our time is actually spent building it,” Edwards said.

Most of the student organizations that build and race mini-Baja cars in competition have at least one female member, and USF is no exception. Amy Gamett has been a member of the club for three years and is currently the treasurer.

Gamett said that when she was a freshman, she was unsure of her major, and a friend told her about the mini-Baja club. She saw what the organization did and liked it so much that she declared a major in mechanical engineering.

“For the most part, girls don’t have experience building things, and it’s a disadvantage,” Gamett said. “This team includes me and teaches me anything that I want to know — I’ve learned a lot.”

Building a mini-Baja car is an extensive engineering task.

“It’s a trick to make us better engineers, it’s fun, it’s a total hands-on experience, and it will look great on our resume’s,” Chow said.

For more information on the Society of Automotive Engineers go to or call 974-5833.

Contact Annie Curnowat