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A classroom of dust and dirt

Members of the Society of Automotive Engineers stand near one of two of their hand-built Baja vehicles. The cars take around 3,000 hours to construct and can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000. ORACLE PHOTO/JOSE LOPEZ JR.

It’s the first day back from the race in South Dakota as members of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) hose the dirt off their bus and cars. Even after hours on the road and through the tension of the race, the atmosphere is laid back as the members joke and laugh.

Though the official results aren’t out yet, they are confident about their performance. “So far this year we’re doing pretty good. In the two races we’ve done so far we were fifth at East, and out west in South Dakota they don’t have the official results out yet, but we’re thinking either fourth or fifth,” said Mark Robinson, president of SAE. “We came in second in the endurance race.”

Four weekends a year, members of the organization travel around the country competing against 120 other schools. They currently attend all three North-American Baja races and have been racing one Formula SAE race for the past three years. Next year they hope to add another race into the mix.

The SAE builds two cars – a Mini Baja and a Formula – from scratch, investing a lot of time in construction – about 3,000 hours per car – and traveling to and from races. A total of about one month is spent on the road, the length of each actual trip varying.

“We built Baja’s for a long time and then once we got good enough at that, it felt like it was worth delving into Formula and we started up a Formula team,” Robinson said. “Formula’s a lot harder competition to be at the top level.”

Baja races are off-road and over rough-terrain motor-cross tracks, while Formula car racing is done on asphalt. The SAE members take turns driving the cars in the races. The competitions aren’t just races, but engineering and design competitions too. Engineers from different companies inspect the cars and ask questions about the design, cost of the parts and why certain parts were chosen. There is also a sales presentation, which is a type of workshop where members put on their suits and “sell” their car to a “business.”

In addition to the race in South Dakota, they also attended a Formula race in Detroit. They leave again Tuesday for their next Mini Baja race in Rochester, N.Y. Both the Formula and Mini Baja programs have worldwide competitions, but the current funding does not accommodate overseas travel.

The cost is anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 to construct a car. SAE receives its funding from the University and private sponsors.

“Student Government is real nice to us. They give us the majority of our money, and then generally we’ve been able to get private sponsors to match it,” Robinson said.

Frey said there are about 30 active members in SAE, with about 100 on their list servers. While participants at some schools receive academic credit, at USF being a member of SAE is a completely extra-curricular activity. They emphasize the importance of bringing new students into the shop, including business majors to help handle the office end of SAE.

“We offer students a chance to do something on campus that they never really probably thought was here,” Robinson said. “Who would have figured that you get to build cars, race cars and travel the country? It teaches you more about engineering than you’ll probably ever learn in any engineering class.”

They have been doing Mini Baja for eight years, and it is their third year racing the Formula cars. In 2004, they were SAE International overall-point champions in the country and in 2003, they were second in points for the country.

While traveling across the country for the races, they also take the time to enjoy the scenery.

“We try to take everybody to go sight-seeing,” Robinson said. “If you’ve burned up all the gas to get out west, you might as well go see some of the sights out there.”

Stops they have made during their races include Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota, trips through the Redwoods and San Francisco.

Members travel the country on their bus, which they modified themselves. Cost and safety reasons led to the need for a bus, so two years ago they put together a proposal, went to Sun Hydraulics and convinced the owner to give them $10,000 to buy a bus. They went through the whole bus and essentially turned it into an RV complete with a foldout barbecue grill.

“We’ve got without a doubt the loudest stereo system that you’re going to be able to find,” Robinson said.

When they’re not racing, the members love to have fun and show their school pride. They take their bus to all of the home football games and have tailgating parties at the old Tampa Bay Mall parking lot.

The prizes for racing range from recognition for the school to actual trophies and cash for different events at each of the competitions.

“Last year we brought home almost $10,000 in cash and prizes in the events,” said Nic Frey, vice president of SAE. “A lot of it’s really just accreditation and recognition for the school – within the automotive industry – and the manufacturers. They know now that students coming from USF are well-rounded, know how to build, they have experience (and) team work skills.”