College students are used to going full-throttle during finals week. It’s especially true for about 20 University of Kansas School of Engineering seniors, but for this group, a checkered flag and a big trophy will signify finals week success.
These seniors, along with about 20 underclassmen volunteers, spent the school year designing, building and testing a Formula-style racecar — and this week they are competing in Detroit at the nation’s largest and most prestigious Formula competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.
“Our goal is to win,” said Matt Petty, a senior from Chanhassen, Minn., majoring in mechanical engineering. “We’ve had four top 10 finishes in the last five years,” between this competition and another big one in California, Petty said.
The work begins in August, designing every aspect of the car from the ground up. It’s not until the second semester that the actual manufacturing begins. And KU’s program is unique in that a majority of the components and custom parts for the car are made on campus.
“It’s really cool to say that we make 80-90 percent of our components. Most teams have to buy a lot of off-the-shelf parts because they don’t have the resources to build them.” Petty said. “At KU, everybody can get a really great hands-on experience.”
Team members will be put to the test on how the car performs and how they present it. The must explain to a panel of experts how they designed the car and why it’s better than the others at the competition. The team is also put through a mock sales presentation, where they must pitch how they’d get the car out on the market, and they are tasked with determining the costs to mass-produce their vehicle.
The team is also evaluated on four racing events. The car is put through a series of figure eight maneuvers, which test the car’s suspension and gauges how well it corners. The car is tested on its acceleration in a 75-meter drag race. The autocross portion of the competition is a one-minute race around obstacles. And the endurance test is a large-scale version of the autocross competition that is 20 minutes long and tests fuel economy.
“That is really the true test of the vehicle,” Petty said. “Not only is it able to be fast but withstand all the different things that can happen during a 20-minute race.”
Team members spend countless hours in the shop designing, refining, tweaking and improving the car in preparation for the competition. Petty said most of the students who dedicate so much time to the car during the school year won’t wind up pursuing a career in racing, but the yearlong effort still drives home a strong message.
“It really pushes innovation and it teaches you to push your designs — in whatever field you’re in. On a racecar, if one bolt fails, the whole vehicle fails, so it really teaches you how critically you have to design everything and how you have to think about everything on there,” Petty said.