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Mini-Baja cars battle rocks and mud

When it rains, the dirt turns into a glue-like substance, unsuitable for hiking. In the West, water runs down the mountains to meld that dirt into a porridge of mud. Yet through all the unfamiliar conditions of the Midwest terrain, an eight-member Florida crew was able to survive — in mini-Baja cars.

USF’s Society of Automotive Engineers returned this week from a three-day racing competition in Utah, its second of three national competitions. Its first race this year took place closer to home in Orlando on April 5.

But this time, the USF students learned that racing mini-Baja cars in the West is unlike anything else.

The western race was hosted by Brigham Young University in Utah, and eight members of the 50-member student organization drove 52 hours to participate in the events which lasted three days, said Christopher Chow, the organization’s president.

Day one consisted of static events, such as design and safety. On the second day, teams had to make a sales presentation to a manufacturing firm as if they wanted to mass-produce their vehicle and were evaluated on presentation. On the third day, dynamic events were held in the areas of rock crawl ability, acceleration, maneuverability and the ability to climb hills.

The competition, which took place May 8-10 in cold rainy weather, mud and in high altitudes, placed some challenges on the team.

“It was really muddy the last day of the competition. Everything was so soupy that drivers were taking off their goggles as they drove, and the safety monitors were going crazy. We were basically driving blind because of all of the mud,” said Kevin Edwards, a driver in the race.

“We also had lots of engine problems because of the high altitude,” Chow said. “The thin air affected the carburetor, and we were never able to get the mix of air and gas right on.”

However, none of the problems the team experienced were major setbacks, and they only had one engineering problem, which occurred at the end of the race.

“On the last lap, the steering arm broke. The car was still drivable unless you had to go backwards and then the wheels would go crazy,” Chow said.

Despite the mechanical setbacks, the mud and running out of gas, the team managed to complete 17 laps on the track in a four-hour period, coming in 24th place out of 100 teams. The team also placed 10th in the rock crawl portion of the endurance competition.

Members of the organization say that the purpose of mini-Baja racing isn’t speed, it’s durability.

“If the car works well and it doesn’t break down on you, then you can win. You don’t have to be fast, just steady,” Edwards said.

The Society of Automotive Engineers is always experimenting with different parts for the vehicle and is constantly rethinking the engineering of it. The car the team is currently using weighs 400 pounds and has a manual transmission. Edwards said it is the third year that the student organization has used this form of transmission, which lends extra speed to the vehicle.

Regardless of how different regional races are, there are still certain standard components, like a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine, which must be used in the vehicles. Chow said this is because there would be no way to accurately judge the cars against each other if they were mechanically different.

The three regional competitions in which the organization participates contain various terrain. The western competition in Utah consisted of “boulders, mud and drop-off cliffs,” said Chow.

The eastern competition, which was in Orlando last month, had an amphibious race and the Midwestern race, which will be in the plains of Ohio next month, will be more like a moto-cross track.

USF’s team is one of the few teams to participate in all three regional events. This is partly because the races are so geographically spread apart and also because of funding issues.

“When we travel as a team we keep it affordable so that we can go to all three races. We all cram into one hotel room unlike a lot of the other teams that put their money toward getting multiple rooms,” Edwards said. “If we didn’t do it this way, we would only be able to do one race a year.”

The students in this group say they really enjoy what they do within the organization. They balance schoolwork with club activities and put in countless hours designing, building, rebuilding, traveling and racing their cars.

The team’s next competition is June 5-8 in Troy, Ohio. Currently, the Society of Automotive Engineers use to compete is disassembled. Edwards said to prepare for the next race the group has to assemble the car, adjust the top speed, change the tires and fix the broken steering arm.

“The upcoming race in Ohio is a moto-cross track that is mainly elevated mounds of dirt. It is the easiest race of the year, and it is also the hardest race of the year because it is the most popular,” Chow said.