Little Team That Could
UTC Baja car places among elite engineering schools
Cooper, Staff Writer
Appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, May 2006
"Did I mention we beat Georgia Tech?"
Recent University of Tennessee at Chattanooga engineering graduate Mark Gilbert had reason to repeat himself after the Running Mocs team placed 19th among 168 registered schools in the recent Society of Automotive Engineers Mini Baja Midwest competition in Milwaukee, Wis.
UTC not only beat Georgia Tech (84th) but also defeated schools with far more established engineering programs.
"Everybody who¹s anybody in engineering is in it," said Karl Fletcher, faculty project manager for the project. "It¹s the Super Bowl of mechanical engineering for education." With 465 students in the school¹s engineering program, UTC had the smallest such program of all schools that entered, he said. To boot, Mr. Fletcher said, it was the Running Mocs¹ first year in the 30-year-old competition.
"Having a mature engineering program obviously makes us able to compete with any school in the world," he said. "It says that loudly and clearly."
In the Mini Baja, students not only function as a team to design, build, test, promote and race a vehicle but also raise financial support for the project and manage their educational priorities.
The UTC vehicle, created from chromium-molybdenum tubing with the same 10-horsepower engine as all other entrants, boasts a two-speed transmission and rear-wheel drive.
The vehicle, which looks like a small dune buggy, is 91.5 inches long and 54 inches wide, weighs 440 pounds and can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour.
The Midwest event was one of three regional competitions that simulate real-world engineering design projects and their challenges, according to the SAE Web site.
Mr. Gilbert, the Running Mocs co-captain, said the 19 th-place finish exceeded his expectation for the team to be in the top 25 and the university¹s expectation of a top-50 finish.
"We competed on a national level," the April graduate said. "We have a great engineering school and staff willing to support a program like this."
The UTC team was in 98th place after the team¹s first-day cost and design report submission and moved to 70th after its second-day manufacturability interviews by a Honda Motorsports team.
"One (interviewer) stated that it was the best fabricated car at the competition, hands down," said Mr. Gilbert. "That got our spirits up."
After the next day¹s dynamic events, testing the vehicle in speed and acceleration, maneuverability, effort in the mud and ability to pull weight with a chain, the Running Mocs moved up to 25th.
UTC¹s car, he said, was designed to compete well in every event, though not necessarily to win. He said if a car competed in every event without breaking apart or breaking down, the chances were good of the car being in the top 50.
"Doing that helped us place where we did," he said.
The final competition, on the fourth day, was the endurance race. Co-captain Jeremy Goodman, Chad Monroe, Graham Hines and Mr. Gilbert swapped out as drivers in the race, in which teams had to complete as many laps as they could in four hours.
The Running Mocs completed 45 laps, four fewer than Mini Baja Midwest champion Oregon State.
Overall, the team finished 1.55 points behind Tennessee Tech, which had participated in the race for many years and whose team members had been a "great help" to UTC¹s team, Mr. Gilbert said.
"We used them as a standard," he said.
Mr. Fletcher said UTC students and staff put more than 3,000 recorded hours into preparation for the event and probably spent closer to 5,000 hours.
The Running Mocs, according to Mr. Fletcher, were a highly skilled 20-member team of predominantly seniors in their mid-20s ‹ nine mechanical engineers, one electrical engineer, one industrial engineer and one chemical engineer in the core team ‹ who combined real-world experience, military experience and off-road experience. A mature faculty and strong shop supervisor and machinist added to the mix, he said.
Excepting "a few mistakes a rookie team would make, I think we could go back with the same team and same car" and have a top 10 finish, he said.
Mr. Gilbert said in another year the team might have used its lightest drivers in the various events, but "my goal from the very beginning was to use people who worked on the car."
The Running Mocs¹ drivers weighed from 170 to 225 pounds while most teams averaged 125 to 140 pounds, "but I didn¹t care," he said. "The greatest thing is we didn¹t have to compromise anything."
Mr. Gilbert said while exceeding his personal goals for the race was great, the Mini Baja finish was important for the school to prove it could compete on a national level.
UTC as a school was "ready to do something like this," Mr. Fletcher said. "Our intent is not to stop here, though, but to go with it."
"And did I mention we beat Georgia Tech?" Mr. Gilbert said. "I just love to say that."
E-mail Clint Cooper at email@example.com