Dune buggy engineers place well in national competition

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Dune buggy competition helps students prepare for future careers in the automotive industry

See a photo feature of dune buggy shots here.

Throw a bunch of metal and wheels into a group of mechanical engineering students and what do you get? A dune buggy fit for the national Baja Society of Automotive Engineers annual race circuit.

The Baja SAE has three competitions during the summer, spread out across the country in the East, Midwest and West. Lipscomb University’s team, consisting of three mechanical engineering majors, one electrical engineering major and one entrepreneurship major, most recently competed in the Peoria, Ill., race, placing 28th overall. They competed against more than 100 schools including Purdue University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Clemson University.

Each Baja SAE team is given the same 10-horsepower Intek Model 20 engine donated by Briggs & Stratton Corporation. The students are responsible for putting together a design report, a cost report, sales and design presentation and to build the ATV. 

After the safety tests, vehicles are tested based on factors like acceleration, maneuverability and distance. Then mud flies at the main event -- a grueling four-hour endurance race through rough terrain. This year, 93 out of 121 schools present qualified for the race. 

“The teams have to pass a very rigid technical inspection at the beginning. If they fail, they cannot advance,” said Fort Gwinn, associate dean of the Raymond B. Jones College of Engineering. “The way most teams look at it, if you’re in the race from the beginning until the end, you’ve done great.”

Since its first participation in 2007, Lipscomb has seen steady improvement in performance, Gwinn said. Over the years, the team has improved in certain areas such as acceleration and maneuverability, he said.

Lipscomb’s dune buggy this year was the same as last year’s vehicle, but with modifications. Every year, Gwinn said, students discuss whether or not to start from scratch or take the old car and make it better. One advantage of reusing a car is that they have a design they know will work.

Although the same car was used, many changes had to be made, said co-captain Courtney Roberts and Andres Garcia, both rising seniors.

“I redesigned the front suspension which was a big responsibility but also a great opportunity to learn more about engineering design and analysis,” said Garcia, a mechanical engineering major. “My hope is to keep climbing into the teens in terms of position at next year’s competition. We will be completely redesigning and building a new vehicle next year.”

Richard Gregory, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is the faculty advisor for Lipscomb’s team, but students assume full responsibility for the project.

“There is very little oversight. The students work independently,” Gwinn said. “Everything from the design, the suspension, the steering, to the welding – they do all the design and construction.”

Gregory wants students to learn independently as well.

“It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to watch students take off on their own to assume leadership roles and learn new skills outside the classroom,” Gregory said. “I often tell the students that I do not care about winning trophies. I care about two things – after safety, of course – having fun and learning.”

It is the learning experiences that students value the most, Roberts agreed.

Roberts, a mechanical engineering major who has been a Baja SAE team member since her freshman year, served as supervisor for the project this year, working to make sure every detail fell into place, from sponsorship, to design, to marketing, to building.

“I really learned a lot of things that other engineering students would not normally get to learn in a classroom,” Roberts said. “It’s certainly a challenge, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

The experience is not limited to engineering students alone.

“That’s the thing about Baja,” Roberts said. “We are open to any type of student interested in being a part of the team. They don’t have to have a lot of experience because they will learn so much by just being a part of it.”

In order to acquire parts and materials to build the car, students rely on sponsorships from local businesses and families. Volunteer Welding, MetalCraft INC. and Mary Ann Brown, were some of the sponsors this year, along with Lipscomb’s Student Government Association and university alumni.

Students get to learn how to carry a project out from concept to design, and from fabrication to the maintenance of it, Gwinn said. This gives them skills that make them more valuable as employees.

“It’s not unusual for a representative from a company like Honda to stop by our pit and say, 'Here’s my business card. We would like to talk to you guys when you’re ready to graduate.' If they see that you were part of the Baja SAE team, it gets people’s attention,” Gwinn said.

In October, Lipscomb’s Baja SAE team and the dune buggy will head to the University of Louisville for a non-SAE competition, the Midnight Mayhem race, a friendly competition among engineering students.