Bama Baja

May 15, 2009

Late nights, a lot of mud and a flat tire: it was a typical SAE Collegiate Design Series competition when Kettering University's Baja team took their vehicle to Alabama to compete against 99 other Baja enthusiasts.

Kettering University’s SAE Baja team weathered the weather, broken parts and flat tires to ALMOST make it through the endurance race, but accumulated factors stopped them in their, uh, tire tracks, as it were.

They left Kettering on a Wednesday (April 15) around 8 p.m. with a small detour to Ohio to pick up team members and then made the 15-hour drive to SAE Baja Alabama 2009 at Auburn University.

By Friday (April 17), the team was at the competition site at the test facility for the National Center for Asphalt Technology (NCAT), a working engineering test site. Friday’s events included Tech Inspections, design judging and cost reviews, and anticipating what they would need to fix to meet the 2009 rule changes. Saturday (April 18) events included acceleration, braking, traction, suspension and maneuverability.

Their first night in Auburn, the team walked the endurance track to prepare for the four-hour endurance race.  The track was 2.28 miles for one lap and presented what Team Co-Captain Karen Dernar termed “a very intense and heavy duty course.”

“They incorporated all the challenges that off road enthusiasts would experience, such as river crosses, whoops, hill climbs, rock crawls, extreme hills and jumps, railroad track and rocks,” she said. The weather was warm and sunny through Saturday, but the area experienced rain Sunday, making the course very muddy – “but that’s what Baja is all about,” said Dernar.

Saturday the team passed technical inspection with only one bolt that had to be replaced, so there were no major changes to the vehicle, according to Dernar.  The Kettering vehicle ran all the events: acceleration, braking, traction, suspension, and maneuverability without a problem, she said.  They also all had an opportunity to run the practice track Saturday night which resulted in a last-minute front suspension re-design.

“After taking a few runs on the practice course, we found a small break that needed a quick fix,” said Dernar. “We also noticed that we needed about 1/8-inch more of clearance between our front uprights and the wheel hubs. We came up with a solution for shortening our uprights by 1/8-inch. What should have been a quick fix affected the entire front suspension, and we needed to make new steering control arms to fit the changed design.”

Working until 3:30 a.m. to make the new parts work and aligning the car so the front wheels were not toed in or out, the team started the final day on little sleep.

On Sunday, when they had an opportunity to drive the car, they noticed a considerable improvement in the car's turning radius, to their advantage.  The re-design proved to be a great idea, Dernar said, and resulted in improved maneuverability.

The four-hour endurance race began at 8:45 a.m., and the first lap took the Ketteringvehicle 15 minutes to complete.  After the first lap, they decreased their lap time to about eight minutes.  After four laps they experienced a flat tire, like almost every single team, according to Dernar.

Finishing the fifth lap, they drove into the pits and plugged the tire. “We completed two more laps, but during the seventh lap our driver experienced a wheel lock-up. We checked it out in the hot pits, and noticed the break in the upright, putting the team out of the competition with only 45 minutes to go in the race,” she said.

“Had we had more sleep the night before and more energy, we would have been able to fix the upright and get back into the race for only about one or two more laps,” said Dernar, “but since we were happy with our progress and achievements up until that point, the team unanimously decided to call it a day.”

Overall, the team was happy with their performance in Alabama coming in 60th place out of 100. They are using what they learned about their vehicle in Alabama to improve their next Baja design.

Written by Dawn Hibbard