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Adrenaline 101: Off-Road Engineers Excel

Photo Caption: A four-hour SAE Baja race is a muddy marathon.

Safety goggles are required gear in many campus labs. Mechanical engineering graduate student Sam Markkula and his teammates just prefer one that also requires a helmet, rollbars and lots of mud.

Markkula is a member of the UMBC chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), a student club of hands-on engineers who design, build and race an off-road vehicle for Baja SAE, a series of annual endurance races against national and international competition.

The group just returned triumphant from the SAE Baja East race in Auburn, Alabama, with the best overall score (7th out of 100 teams) in UMBC SAE history. Team UMBC finished ahead of cars from Georgia Tech, Auburn University, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Bucknell, Virginia Tech and other prestigious universities.

“Our months and countless hours of hard work have definitely paid off,” said Mark Foster, a senior mechanical engineering major and president of UMBC Baja SAE.

In addition to a four-hour long endurance race, Baja SAE teams are graded on their cars’ maneuverability, suspension, traction, speed, ergonomics and production cost. The 2009 UMBC team continued its tradition of excelling in the cost category, achieving their Top 10 overall results with the cheapest-to-produce car in the field.

“UMBC's Baja SAE team is now in the top 10 nationwide, but in our eyes, they are number one,” said Shlomo Carmi, professor and chair of mechanical engineering. “It is especially impressive that during this difficult budget cycle, they delivered again on the ‘best bang for the buck.’ We are so proud of this team of outstanding students.”

The Baja SAE endurance race is a sensory overload of noise and nerves. Drivers have to resist the urge to drive at top speeds so the car can last the entire duration without being disqualified, tumbling down steep hills, or crashing into logs, rocks and other cars. Other team members serve as pit crew for fuel or repair stops.

“Imagine over 100 lawnmowers all running in close proximity,” said Markkula. “It’s quite loud. We cleaned off at least 30 pounds of mud from each car, and the drivers probably have breathed in at least a half pound by the end of the race.”

This year’s team owes a tip of the helmet to nearby Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) Catonsville. A change to an independent rear suspension required moving and custom-designing the gearbox. The UMBC team was fortunate to receive help from Bill Werneke, an expert machinist and instructor of CCBC-Catonsville’s manufacturing technology program.

Werneke programmed blueprints for the gearbox design into computer-assisted manufacturing and design software, and built the rig in the workshop with the help of his students. Werneke and the CCBC program serve as an apprenticeship path and hands-on training for future machinists from across Maryland. 

Baja SAE is open to graduate or undergraduate students willing to contribute their time, learn how to operate the shop tools and who are in good academic standing. UMBC Baja SAE is advised by mechanical engineering professor Tony Farquhar.

The UMBC team’s next race is in Wisconsin in June. For more information, visit www.sae.org and click on the Baja SAE link.

To watch video of UMBC’s Baja SAE team in action at a 2008 event, click on the video player below:


Posted: April 23, 2009, 12:00 PM