A bright light shines overhead in what used to be an old gym and in what now is part of the UMBC Technology Research Center. In its glow, nearly a dozen mechanical engineering students swarm over two mini-race cars like ants attacking a coconut cake at a summer picnic.
The students are making two cars that look like dune buggies or sand-rails that will compete in the Society of Automotive Engineers' "Mini Baja" Midwest regional competition in Milwaukee from June 3 to 6.
"It's like playing with [adult] Lego [bricks]," said team member Chad Richman, 19, a sophomore from Silver Spring who is also a project manager on one of the cars.
It's an exciting, fun project for the 15 to 30 students who spend their spare time working on the cars. It's also more than that.
The hands-on project reflects work in the world outside the classroom and could lead to jobs with racing teams as car fabricators or engineers or, like Alex Marinelli, the project's leader last year, a job with the Toyota design department in Michigan.
"We can all dream," said junior John Keyser, fabricator on the cars.
UMBC is the only Maryland school entered in the competition. The college's participation goes back at least 14 years but has been building steam over the past two and may soon become a credited activity in the UMBC engineering department.
"The Mini Baja project is a very valuable activity," said Panos Charalambides, chairman of the engineering department. "It is currently beyond [department] expectations and demonstrates the initiatives of very special students who have a special inner drive. ... We're developing ways to give them three credits toward their degrees for their work. We hope it will start next year."
The cars, powered by 10-horsepower engines donated by Briggs & Stratton, are supposed to be theoretical prototypes for the production of 3,000 more. Every team is judged on the car's driveability, comfort, serviceability, maneuverability and braking distance. The project is also judged on the documentation that must accompany the work. Students file reports on budgets, fund-raising, labor costs and getting parts.
The cars cost from $3,000 to $10,000, with travel money to the competition running $3,000 to $4,000 more. The money comes from donations from UMBC's student association, the engineering department, students' out-of-pocket donations and donors such as Lockheed-Martin, National Instruments, and Lightvisionstudios.com, all of which also help individual students take on projects within the competition.
This season alone, students have developed a marketing video, built a dynamometer to help test engine and transmission systems, and taken on an independent study course to learn about on-board data acquisition for the vehicle.
"It's just like working in the real world," said Chris Appelt, 22, of Edgewood, who is president of the UMBC SAE chapter and the chief coordinator of the Mini Baja project. "You're selecting hardware, balancing budgets, maintaining leadership. ... Students learn how to deal with people on every level, and they develop confidence in their ability to apply what they've learned in the textbooks outside of the classroom. It's one of the only outlets for that."
Another part of the contest, which counts for half of the final score, is a four-hour endurance race in which the students drive the cars, work as a pit crew and perform maintenance.
That part and the enthusiasm of Corey Fleischer, who is a designer on the cars, persuaded junior Lyndsay Beaulieu, 21, to join the team.
"Corey and I study together, and he loves this project. It's his life," said Beaulieu, the team's only woman and one of its managers. Her main job is finding money. "I came along one day and learned how to weld. Now, I can't wait for the race. I think I'll get to drive one of the cars in the competition."
Professor Bill Wood is the adviser on the project. He said the 80 schools participating will make 130 to 150 cars. Last year, UMBC finished in the top half. This season, the goal is bigger. Wood believes UMBC can finish in the top quarter of the entries. Appelt wants his team in the top 35. Charalambides, the department head, thinks his students can make the top 20.
"Whatever they do," he said, "we will be very proud."
Hagerstown Speedway will open for its 57th season today. The track was supposed to open last Sunday, but the weather nixed that. So Hagerstown will try again with a 1 p.m. start and a program that includes modifieds and late models.
In preseason activities, 40 cars showed up for the track's 19th annual Race-A-Rama car show at the Valley Mall. Cars came from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Awards were presented in each division. Local drivers taking top awards were Billy Byrd of Hagerstown "best overall" for his pure stock car and Pete Weaver of Williamsport in the late model sportsman division.
Nuts and bolts
Budds Creek Motorcross Park in Southern Maryland will open today with a full card of motorcycle and mini-bike races. Information: 301-475-2000.
The NASCAR 3D IMAX film is coming to the Maryland Science Center beginning March 12. Actor Barry Pepper, whose credits include The Green Mile with Tom Hanks and We Were Soldiers with Mel Gibson, has been chosen to play the role of the late Dale Earnhardt in 3, ESPN's original, made-for-TV movie based on the career of the stock car racing legend.
Porsche historian Lee Raskin of Brooklandville will appear on SpeedTV's premiere episode of Behind The Headlights at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Raskin provided historical and technical consultation for this special and will discuss actor James Dean's racing career and death.
McKee wins awards
Sun sportswriter Sandra McKee won three first-place awards in the Eastern Motorsports Press Association's writing contest.
McKee was honored in the daily newspaper categories for feature writing for the Feb. 12, 2003, article about spying among teams in the NASCAR garages, "In NASCAR, curtain of speed hides cloak-and-dagger scenes"; for an Aug. 8, 2003, personality profile on eventual champion Matt Kenseth, "Kenseth: the quiet leader of the pack", and for the Feb. 17, 2003, coverage of Michael Waltrip's victory at the Daytona 500, "Waltrip reigns at Daytona again."