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USF finds silver lining in time for Lincoln


For the USF Formula Society of Automotive Engineers racing team, summer means competition — and it’s been anything but relaxing.

During the year, the team puts in 30 to 40 hours a week in the shop, on top of school and work, to build a car that will culminate in three races each summer.

There’s the opener in Michigan, which stands as USF’s biggest contest of the year with 120 college competitors. Last year, USF finished 67th overall in spite of engine difficulties. Next on the schedule is a race run by Formula North, an organization in Toronto, Canada, which features 20 other teams. USF finished fourth last year. That event is viewed by the team as a practice for its final competition of the season — Lincoln.

But this season is different.

The team ran into some bumps in the road earlier this year, keeping it out of the first two races.

So after a year of building its car, USF’s first — and last — competition of the season will take place in Lincoln, Neb., on June 19-23. The team will compete against 80 other teams. USF will be defending a top-10 finish after finishing ninth overall last season in Lincoln.

The president of the USF team, Simon Restrepo, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said the issues that arose weren’t just in the car but within the team itself.

“It was a lot of different things from issues between members to sponsors and vendors not getting the parts done on time,” Restrepo said.

He said the team receives its car parts as donations, and is not in a position to put pressure on its sponsors or vendors, he said.

“We had to withdraw from the Michigan event because the car was in no shape or form to compete — it had no rear.” Restrepo said. “The second competition we had to withdraw from was in mid-May, and that was Formula North. Our car was very close, but we didn’t have axles and some machine parts from our

While the trouble with sponsors was underway, emotions ran high. As with a team in any other sport in the locker room, racing is no stranger to arguments in the shop.

“The issue with this program is that it’s an extracurricular activity,” Restrepo said. “For you to do 30 hours a week without much reward, you have to be very passionate about what you want to do. But when you have a lot of passion, that’s when egos collide and disagreeing happens. People want things done their way. That emotion can get in the way of logic, and that’s what happened in March and April.”

But what Restrepo and the team didn’t see coming was the silver lining.

One night, late in the shop when Restrepo was away, the team was hard at work.

That’s when Chris Smith, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, walked to the scale. On top of it was the car they had been working on.

Smith, in his second year with the team, couldn’t believe his eyes.

The car that sat on the scale weighed 330 pounds — five pounds short of the team’s beginning-of-the-year goal, which it had just about lost with the other problems it faced.

“I was speechless,” Smith said. “We were all like, ‘something is wrong with the scale.’ We blew our goal out of the water.”

Five pounds may not seem like a lot, but for the team, it meant more than a lighter car. It meant a turnaround.

Now, with the team’s past behind it and Lincoln ahead, the team has caught its second wind.

“After we saw the weight and everything, we want to make the best push in this competition,” Smith said. “We want to attack Lincoln and defend our ninth place finish last year. We’re ready and we’re excited.”

Last season, when USF received its top-10 finish, a portion of the points earned was from a business presentation. Along with endurance,
acceleration, skid pad and other events, each team must conduct
a 10 minute business pitch speech in front of judges. It’s worth 75 of 1000 total points.

Last year, for the first time, junior Jackie LeBrun, a
mechanical engineering major, was in charge of the
presentation. She will lead the effort again this year, and while she hasn’t gotten much
experience since, she said she isn’t too worried.

“It’s a little bit nerve-racking but it’s also given me a lot more time to practice from last year,” LeBrun said.

LeBrun will get even more practice this weekend as the USF Formula SAE team unveils its car in a showing Saturday from
7 to 8:30 p.m. in the
Engineering II building.

After the showing, the team will get on its signature racing bus, along with its new car, and head to Nebraska hoping to start — and end — its season on a high note.