A UMBC engineers' race drives innovation

Race. Wreck. Rebuild. Repeat.

Four words, outlined by 23-year-old Nick Belkoff, sum up a year in the life of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Baja Racing team.

The team, which started in 1991, is an extracurricular activity at the university. About 20 students work on the team's 320-pound single-seat dune buggy.

The off-road car is designed to climb hills and "go over a lot of bumpy stuff," as Belkoff, a Baldwin native and team member who is studying information systems, said.

The car has a theoretical top speed of 42 mph, and it has reached 35 mph in action. It's limited because of friction loss and terrain differences, said Natalie Rudisill, a 21-year-old from Hagerstown who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in May.

"It's simple, it's lightweight, it's unstoppable, basically," said Sam Scott, the team's outgoing captain. He's a 21-year-old from Rising Sun who graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering.

For some students, the team provides a real-life opportunity to use what they have learned. Others enjoy it for meeting fellow racers and potential employers.

"It takes the stuff you're learning in the classroom, all the theoretical math, and actually gives you a place to apply it," said Robert Sherwood, a 20-year-old from Derwood studying mechanical engineering. "When you're doing Baja you're learning a lot more than just the equations behind things, its how they all relate to everything."

In June, after the final race of the year, the team comes together to prepare for the following year. Members spend the summer using three-dimensional modeling software to come up with a design. The team tries to get a car on the ground by February and running by April, when competition season starts.

The car costs about $7,000 to build, but the team spends about another $20,000 for testing, tuning and other parts. The team gets some funding from the university and support from sponsors.

It's tough to put a cash value on the sponsorships because while some help with money, others help with goods and services, Rudisill said.

Their work gets put to the test when the students attend a series of competitions hosted by the Society of Automotive Engineers. There are three that take place each year, one in April, one in May and one in June. This year, due to scheduling and budget issues, the team attended two.

All teams that take part in competitions — about 110 around the world — use the same 10 horsepower Intek Model 19 engine, donated by Briggs & Stratton Corp., worth $628.

The first Baja SAE competition in North America took place in 1976, with 90 students participating on 10 registered teams.

On the first day, the engine is inspected and team members make their sales pitch, to convince entrepreneurial investors to — hypothetically — purchase 4,000 cars in a format similar to the television show "Shark Tank."

The team will be asked about its manufacturing, sales, design, marketing and financial plans over the course of the presentation.

"The judges are usually less dramatic," Belkoff said.

On the second day, the vehicle goes through a technical inspection to make sure it meets the rules of the competition and and a brake check to make sure it's able to stop abruptly. It also goes through a cost evaluation, an event that focuses on producing the least expensive vehicle.

The UMBC team finished first in cost in its May competition in Kansas.

The third day is known as "Dynamic Day," when the team takes part in a series of timed events that measure the car's acceleration, maneuverability and suspension.

The final day is the endurance race, when the machines run an obstacle course, typically two to three miles, for four hours. Whichever team logs the most laps wins. If cars break down, the team is able to fix the car before bringing it back onto the track.

Scott, who has driven the endurance race, said there's a constant debate in his head about how aggressively or conservatively he should drive on the track.

"It's a lot of fun, but you have to be careful because as a driver you want to push the car as hard as you can, but you also have to have in the back of your mind the entire time, that if I break the car, I have to get out and fix it," he said. "My team's going to be mad at me if I break it, too."

He concludes that not breaking down is better than going fast and breaking down.

As the season comes to a close, it's a time of transition. Some members, including Scott and Rudisill, graduate and get jobs. Taking part in the club helped them both with their job searches.

Scott will be doing mechanical engineering at Stanley Black & Decker in Towson, while Rudisill will be designing and updating heating, cooling and ventilation systems with a facilities firm at the Department of Defense.

Neil Rothman, professor of practice of mechanical engineering and faculty adviser of the UMBC Baja team, said companies will contact him about open positions and tell him they want to hire someone from the team.

He said taking part in Baja makes students think and work like an engineer.

"They know that these are people who have that additional level of experience and competence to understand what they're learning in the classroom to real-life situations," he said.

Younger students, such as Sherwood, will step up and take on leadership roles as they begin preparations for another year of work. The team believes it will modify its current car for 2018, rather than building a new car, as it did the previous three years.

"We'll look at the failures we had and fix them," Sherwood said. "We'll do testing and data collection, seeing how and why the car failed so we can re-engineer next year's car to be better and stronger."

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