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Drive like a wildcat: Team Baja

By Amanda Folsom, Contributing Writer

Amanda Folsom/Contributing  Team Baja poses with last year’s constructed vehicle, hoping for a similar turnout with their own. From left to right: Senior mechanical engineering majors Jesse Cole, Alex Taaffee, Dan Johnson, Ethan Morris, Chris Billings, UNH almunis Dan Holm and Andrew MacMillian.
Amanda Folsom/Contributing
Team Baja poses with last year’s constructed vehicle, hoping for a similar turnout with their own. From left to right: Senior mechanical engineering majors Jesse Cole, Alex Taaffee, Dan Johnson, Ethan Morris, Chris Billings, UNH almunis Dan Holm and Andrew MacMillian.

With only about three months left to the school year, much progress has been made by the University of New Hampshire’s engineering community. Students have worked hard these past two semesters, researching and designing the products they come up with. Walk down Kingsbury Hall’s senior project hallway, and you might even find a couple cars.

A group of senior mechanical engineering students who call themselves Team Baja are in the middle of constructing an off-road vehicle. Later this year, they will be trucking their model car to Mechanicsville, Maryland to compete in the Baja Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) annual races.

The 12 seniors have been working on the construction of the car since September, working on everything from virtual design and physical implication to fundraising the event. The car-building project was initially a result of a two 700-level design classes in the Mechnaical Engineering department, but each year it turns out to be much more.

“The whole point of this project is to build a single-seat, off-road vehicle that has good performance, as well as create a strong sales pitch so sponsors can try to market off our design,” said Andrew MacMillan, a Team Baja member.

The team is currently building the frame of the car. They have until the week of the competition, May 7-10, to finish.

This year’s events are being held at Budd’s Creek Motocross Track. Being an international competition this year’s registration limit was set at 100 schools, but that doesn’t mean that all 100 will compete. Every team must pass inspection before they are allowed to race, and sometimes schools travel a long way just to be disqualified.

Every year SAE hosts a total of three Baja international collegiate competitions in the U.S., and every year a team from UNH attends the closest event. Last year, of the 123 registered teams, only 90 passed inspection and continued on. UNH’s team from last year, “Wildcat Off-Road,” ranked 45 out of 90 qualified schools at the end of the events.

Team Baja looks to do even better this year.

“I’d like to improve and do better than they did last year, that would be the ultimate goal,” said Team Baja member, Alex Taaffe. “If we can do better than that then I’ll be happy.”

Taaffe is on the control subgroup of the team. He focuses on everything that incorporates driver interactions, which means steering, breaking and anything else that interferes with the driver.

But the team is looking to improve the throttle response of the vehicle.

“The main theme of this year is weight saving, by cutting things like suspension weight in half,” MacMillan said.

The average weight of these cars range anywhere from 375-400 pounds; the lighter the car, the faster it goes. Everything is built and put together from scratch. Starting with computer design, Team Baja must have every bend and formation down to the exact angle. If one calculation doesn’t match up, the entire project is thrown off.

According to the Team Baja members, this is one of their greatest challenges. Besides constructing an outer shell, another tricky part is all the wiring and mechanics required for the car to operate properly.

“When we design something on the computer it works and it fits great, and then when we actually go out and build it we have to deal with certain tolerances and a lot of the times things don’t line up the way we want them to,” MacMillan said.

In order to compete, each registered team gets their own special, pre-ordered engine — plus a $250 shipping fee. All teams receive the same engine and per SAE rules, the engine must not be tampered with in order to give each team an equal shot at winning the races.

“There’s a lot of designing and a lot of changes from last year’s model, and you get to actually compete with it,” said Chris Billings, Team Baja member.  “[The car is] something fun that you can drive around whenever you want, so it’s a good project.”

There are a couple of team members working on the car every day to make deadline. Because if there’s anything Team Baja is racing against, it’s the clock.

“It’s really stressful trying to keep everyone around and get all the jobs organized, while watching all the deadlines and making sure everything’s going smoothly and to plan,” Team captain Ethan Morris said. “I hope to do well at competition making it through without breaking, and if we finish everything on time, I’ll be happy.”

Besides a constant race to meet deadlines, Team Baja must meet the monetary challenges of the project. The Baja race registration fee alone costs a minimum of $1,150. Besides the registration and engine fee, Team Baja keep costs down by obtaining discount material and donations from local sponsors through family ties.

So far Team Baja has raised $5,000 coupled with a few thousand left over from last year.

The team is also obligated to draw up cost reports, due intermittently. They explain rates and total costs of the on-going project: The lower the cost, the more points the team earns.

“The biggest money saver is the fact that we are reusing some components and making virtually everything in house, which doesn’t cost a dime,” MacMillan said.

As the competition gets closer, the boys will fight to get the car operating exactly the way they’ve planned for the events in hopes of  winning spot. When teams win, they get a cash prize, as well as raffle prizes throughout.

Despite the time limit and issue of exact accuracy, Team Baja believes they will succeed and return home in May with a higher ranking for the books.

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