Recently, we’ve had the opportunity to sponsor Michigan Baja Racing Team. They compete with SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Baja, which is a student competition wherein the teams each build and race a single seat off-road vehicle. We were able to interview Justin Lopas, Team Captain, for insight into the team and competition.
PTG: Tell us a little bit about the team. How did it get started? How many students is the team made up of today? How many years has the team been competing?
Justin: The team was started back in the late 1970’s, took a short hiatus, and then was back in the late 1980’s. This upcoming year is our 27th year of continuous year of operation as a team. The team has gone through ups and downs in terms of recruitment and competition performance, but I am happy to say that the past 4-5 years have been a continuous improvement and steady growth of the team. In the past three years, we have placed, first, second, and first respectively in overall points for the race season. We’ve also grown in number to about twenty active members on the team last year.
PTG: How long does the team have for the design and construction of the car? What are the first steps taken?
Justin: It’s funny, we actually start thinking about the future car and team even before the current season is complete. The three competitions we attend yearly run from late April to late May. Heavy design work starts at the conclusion of the final competition, and continues through first semester, ideally. In parallel, beginning at the start of the school year, we manufacture various components of the car, after they have been designed. The frame is the single most time-consuming part of the car, so that gets started right when we all get back to school. We make our entire jig, notch all the tubes, and weld them together along with many sheet metal tabs to complete the frame. After that, many parts are machined, laid up, ground, welded, and hand-fabricated before assembling to the powder coated frame. The whole car comes together by early March in time for our unveiling event to sponsors, alumni, parents, and university. Afterward, we thoroughly test the car before competition.
PTG: When and where are the competitions taking place this year?
Justin: As of this time, SAE has not released the location and date of the competitions. Rumor has it one competition will be in Southern California for the first time, so we are looking forward to that. The competitions are all around the country, and are geographically spread. For example, last year, we travelled to Alabama, Maryland, and Oregon. It is cool to be able to see the country traveling to these competitions.
PTG: What are your goals for this year and what do you want to change from last year’s design?
Justin: With such a successful year last year, we are planning on pushing ourselves further. I like to split up the goals into three categories: team, car, and competition. For the team, we’re looking to grow membership quite a bit. With more members comes more possibilities for innovative designs, and the ability to manufacture more parts in a quicker time. For the car, we’re taking a big look at efficiency and weight overall. Efficiency in our driveline means taking a hard look at the fundamentals of our transmission, gearbox, and axles. For weight, we are looking at material change for reduced part weight all over the car, and the titanium from PTG is helping us go a long way towards this goal. For competition, we want to win all three. That may sound like a lofty goal, but with our performance last year (two first places, and one second place), and a team hungry for continued victory, I believe this is totally within the realm of possibility.
PTG: Does Michigan Baja Racing have their own machine shop?
Justin: The team, along with several other student engineering project teams shares a machine shop and working space, called the Wilson Student Team Project Center. It has great and expanding capabilities for doing work in house. It’s great, because as engineers we don’t have a lot of opportunity to get really hands-on with our designs, so this helps greatly.
PTG: Has your team ever used titanium? PTG has supplied your team with 6AL-4V bar (1.125” and 2.5” Dia), 6AL-4V Sheet (0.125” and 0.15” thick), and 6AL-6V-2SN bar (2.52” Dia). Tell us how this will be used on the vehicle and how you’re hoping to benefit from the use of titanium.
Justin: We have used very small amounts of titanium in our shock attachment and transmission before, but not in a meaningful amount, this marks the year of the plan to evaluate the performance of Titanium on our car moving forward. The bar stock titanium is planned to be used in our axles, reducing part weight significantly and representing a large total weight savings for our car. The sheet is planned to be used in our braking system primarily, reducing weight and all-important moment of inertia. All this should contribute to a light, strong, highly-performing car.
PTG: We noticed a trend in the recent vehicle names… “Lemon”, “Pepper” and “Salt”. Who decides the name of the vehicle?
Justin: The team captain has traditionally chosen the car’s name, after the first competition. Those three names were actually chosen based on the car’s color (yellow, black, and white respectively). It’s a fun way to refer to the car, as we keep them around for several years after they have been raced for future team learning and driver practice. I can’t say for sure what this next year’s car will be named, but I think we all have some ideas of what we think it should be called.
PTG is extremely excited to see how Michigan Baja Racing does in competition this year. And who knows, maybe they will be competing in our own territory of Southern California!
If you want to find out more about Michigan Baja Racing, visit their website: www.baja.engin.umich.edu