Stevens Mechanical Engineering Senior Design Team Gears Up for Formula SAE Race

4/28/2011

After working continuously since the fall semester, the Formula SAE Senior Design Team at Stevens Institute of Technology finally put their homegrown racecar to the test on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month. Starting in September with nothing but an empty chassis, the team has successfully put together a car that, as one team member says, "will make you reconsider your seatbelt habits."

The five dedicated Mechanical Engineering seniors on the team—John Cengiz, Ken Gerdes, Robert Pellegrino, Ray Smith, and Andrew West—are looking forward to the upcoming SAE International student competition at the Michigan International Speedway on May 11-14. The Formula SAE Michigan meet is one of several annual events where student-built cars from around the country compete in fields like speed, fuel economy, design, and overall performance.

"This year's car design is both well thought out and manufactured to withstand the rigors of competition," says Industry Professor Jan Nazalewicz, who has been the faculty advisor for Formula SAE Car Senior Design for many years. "Due to the financial support we received from Stevens and the help from the SAE students club and friends, we were able to purchase the best components, test the vehicle and tune it to obtain the best possible performance."

A significant amount of collective expertise is represented among the team's members, all of whom grew up working on cars. All five admit that Formula SAE was on their radar even before applying to Stevens. Working out of a garage on the Hoboken waterfront, these students design, weld, wire, and otherwise build a working vehicle from scratch. Even parts of the car body are bent and cut using a hand-powered metal brake and shears. Every inch of the car is dreamed up and realized by undergraduates, including precision elements crafted using the resources of Stevens machine shop, Head Machinist George Wohlrab, as well as technical and machining support from Douglas Meding, Senior Research Engineer at Davidson Laboratory.

"I've always been interested in cars," John says. "I chose this project because it uses a good mix of my hands-on experience and theoretical knowledge to make something as close to perfect as possible."

Robert believes that manual know-how and engineering theory support each other at different stages of the project. The hands-on experience is essential to coming up with designs that work. "Just because you designed it on the computer doesn't mean you can execute it that way," he says. "You need to have first-hand experience of how to build things. If you start on a design knowing how you are going to build it, you will have a better product in the end."

But without the theoretical foundation provided by class, the project would have been nothing but guesswork. "Take the frame, for example," Robert explains. "We know that the stiffest structure is a triangle, so we incorporated triangles. But we also calculated exactly how much force the frame had to handle so we don't add extra weight or create work that is unnecessary."

For these engineering students, overcoming the many challenges has provided continual payoffs throughout the Senior Design process.

When the team was having trouble getting their axles to the right length, "I studied the geometry and made new drawing in SolidWorks," says Ken. "When we got back the new pieces from the machine shop, they worked. That was very satisfying."

Ray says that, after setting up the engine with a custom intake, just seeing the car run provides a lot of enjoyment. "The car throws you in the back of the seat and you feel the speed," he reports with pride. Ray's association with Formula SAE goes back to his freshmen year, when he started working in the garage making small parts and fetching tools. He, like several others, asked to be assigned to the project before it had even been officially announced.

Despite the computer drawings, tungsten welding, and other tangible components that contribute to creating a car with an engine that turns over and can get you from point A to point B, the students all share an ultimate interest in the intangible attraction of cars.

"Speed, raw speed," drives John's passion for cars. "It is just fun to push a car to the limit of physics and then feel the adrenaline of going zero to sixty in three seconds." Andrew agrees. "It is exhilarating to push the accelerator and get pulled into the seat," he says.

Beyond the sheer power of an automobile, there are other rewards that cars bring to those that work to understand them. "There are great communities that develop around working on cars," reports Andrew. "A lot of passionate, resourceful people get together and support each other."

According to Robert, a car is the most versatile tool in one's life. "You can use a car to get to work, visit a friend, pick up dinner, or just get away. A car supports all of the freedoms that you want."