A group of students in gray shirts file out of a cramped classroom onto the road behind Engineering Building IV. Shining flashlights to see through the darkness, they huddle around the frame of a short, black car.
One yanks on the pull start.
The engine roars to life, and the car takes off down the road, ready for competition.
The vehicle will race this week at the Baja Society of Automotive Engineers regional competition in Oregon. The competition challenges collegiate teams to design, build and race an off-road vehicle, testing the cars in categories such as maneuverability, acceleration and endurance.
Last weekend, members of the UCLA Racing Baja team finished building the 335-pound car, which is made mostly of welded steel tubing. The driver, strapped in the middle of the vehicle, will race the car on rugged tracks full of jumps, mud pits and aggressive climbs.
Each car in the competition must be built using the same type of engine, but the design of other parts such as the gear box and transmissions are up to each team, said Dylan Aramburu, a second-year mechanical engineering student on the team. This gives teams the opportunity to fabricate their own customized parts.
A lot of teams buy gearboxes to put in their cars, but UCLA’s Baja team makes its own from scratch, said Anthony Tyson, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and one of the project leaders for the team.
UCLA’s Baja team faced a challenge this year that it had not encountered in the past: It did not have its own workspace.
“Our shop used to be over there,” said Dana D’Amico, pointing to the empty lot that used to hold Engineering 1A before its demolition began in August. The team had to find a new workspace during fall quarter, D’Amico said, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student.
The team shares a room with a mechanical engineering class, squeezing its computers, tools and car in the back corner of the classroom. The members often worked on the car while the class was in session, and tried not to make too much noise, said Peter Shao, a first-year electrical engineering student.
The Baja team also uses the school machine shop, where it must compete for time on the machines with engineering graduate students and seniors completing their design projects.
“You’re usually fighting for a machine,” D’Amico said.
UCLA does not offer a designated class or workspace for the team. Other universities competing against UCLA have well-established programs with rooms and specific courses dedicated to their Baja teams, Tyson said.
But despite this, and amid stiff competition, UCLA placed first in the maneuverability part of last year’s competition.
“We make it happen,” Tyson said.
Baja is not a course offered by UCLA, so new students receive instruction from returning members on how to build the car.
Tyson and fellow fourth-year mechanical engineering student Anthony Gambardella were both project leaders for the team last year, and use their experience to guide other team members in the design process.
Older students learn from past mistakes, and are able to build on the previous year’s design, Tyson said. D’Amico, who started doing Baja as a freshman, recalled a problem from one race last year when the brakes of the car did not work.
“We learned a lot from last year,” D’Amico said. This year, the breaks were designed more strategically, Aramburu said.
Experienced members do not simply recreate the successful designs of previous cars. Instead, they work with the rest of the team and show them how to go through the design process.
During fall quarter, students learned how to use computer-aided design software, which they used to create digital 3-D models of the car parts before machining them. The team then goes through the entire modeling process, so new members will know how to do it from start to finish.
This ensures that future Baja teams will have the knowledge and experience to build their cars, D’Amico said.
Baja Society of Automotive Engineers is an engineering challenge, but the competition also contains a business component. At the competition, teams are required to sell a business plan of their design to a panel of Society of Automotive Engineers judges, presenting their car as potential investment.
The team relies on sponsors, mostly engineering companies, in order to fund projects. The team has more than 25 sponsors, and has received roughly $35,000 in donations, Tyson said.
UCLA’s proximity to aerospace engineering companies provides them with many opportunities for sponsorship, he added.
Countless hours have been spent creating the car that will race in Oregon this week, team member Matt Copperman said, and the time commitment ramped up as the competition neared. In the week before the competition, students were usually in the shop from about 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., leaving mainly to attend class, said Copperman, a second-year physics student.
One night, members of the team were working until 5 a.m., said QSi Tran, a first-year aerospace engineering student.
The team left UCLA at the beginning of the week, and will spend the next several days in competition. After its success in the maneuverability event last year, UCLA is aiming to be one of the top 10 teams at the regional, D’Amico said.