The NIU Formula SAE team designs, builds and will enter a concept race car in competition this May.
Every year, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) hosts a number of international collegiate design contests. The idea behind the contest is that a fictional manufacturing company has contracted a design team to build the prototype for a formula-style race car that’s a quarter of the regular size, according to team co-captain Katelyn Doonan.
Doonan, a graduate student in the mechanical engineering department, has been with the team since her freshman year. Doonan had no knowledge of cars or racing before joining the team.
“I didn’t even know what an Allen wrench was; I didn’t know there were metric and standard wrenches or anything, but you learn everything here,” Doonan said.
The team is open to all majors, but it requires much more than just engineering knowledge.
“They’re four-day competitions, they’re not just races,” Doonan said. “We have to defend our engineering designs, we have to pass a technical inspection, we have to do a cost analysis where we create a 300-page cost-out of the car, and we have to do a marketing presentation where we have to actually pitch this car to potential investors. Our judges are leaders in the automotive field. They’re leaders in the business, design and engineering sections.”
The team spends the fall semester on computers using 3-D modeling software to design and test each part for its car before anything is made. The team members then create prototypes and test them. When all of the parts and pieces have been designed, the team starts the manufacturing process and begins to assemble the car, which usually takes place around the start of the spring semester.
Since the team is creating products that don’t already exist and working within strict restraints, its members must be highly innovative.
“Everything on the car is either designed, built or modified by the team, except for the tires,” Doonan said.
Innovation doesn’t come with low cost. The team will spend $20,000 to $25,000 to design and build the car. All of the money spent by the team is raised by the team through sponsorships. There are about 300 sponsors and each has its logo displayed on the car; the more money a sponsor gives, the bigger their logo.
Senior marketing major Marek Swierczewski is the marketing team captain and is responsible for building awareness of the team. He sells the car and SAE organization to the mock investors during the competition. Swierczewski said he has a complete and utter passion for racing.
“I’ve grown up knowing I wanted to be in racing in some way shape or form,” he said.
While Swierczewski initially joined the team because of his interest in racing, as a marketing major he found the business side of the team intriguing.
“I figured, ‘Why not take a different road? Why not do something different than everyone else in the marketing department?’” Swierczewski said.
The competition the NIU team has entered will be held May 8 to 11 at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. The four-day competition features static and dynamic events. The first two days are static; this is when the marketing team makes its pitch and the technical inspection of the car occurs. The design of the car is also judged during the static days; according to the team, this is the hardest part of the competition, with experts in the field asking the team questions about every part of the car. The next two days make up the dynamic events. This is where the car’s acceleration is measured, the amount of g-forces it can handle is questioned and how well and how quickly it can maneuver through a race track is tested. Two drivers on the team take four laps each to see how fast they can go and then the endurance event puts drivers back on the track for a 26-mile endurance race. Each team must do a driver change midway through the endurance race.
David Reese, senior mechanical engineering major, has worked on many of the team’s cars and is currently in charge of the bodywork. Reese explained that the body is modeled on a computer and cut out of foam. It is then covered in four layers of fiberglass.
Last year, the team did not compete because it ran out of time and couldn’t complete the car. In the three prior years they finished 38th, 41st and 35th out of at least 120 teams. The team members said the last time they competed they were the top-finishing team in the state of Illinois and even beat Purdue University, which is known for its engineering programs.
William Wenk, junior mechanical engineering major, is part of the suspension team. According to Wenk, he was invited in to the shop and told about the team.
After he joined, he spent time at the engineering building between classes working on the car or on homework. Wenk said students could stop by to ask questions and learn.
The team will have a meeting at 5 p.m. today in the Engineering Building, Room 209. The team’s car is housed in the Engineering Building, Room 254 and that’s where the members can be found most of the time.
For more information, visit the team’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/NIUMotorsportsFormula.