An old adage in car racing goes quickly like this: “In order to finish first, first you have to finish.” It’s as black and white, like a checkered flag, as that.
Last week when the Hope College Formula SAE team finished every event set before them at Formula SAE Competition at the Michigan International Speedway (MIS), it fulfilled the last half of that clear-cut adage while hoping for the first. Getting to the finish line of seven design and driving events was their top priority; getting there first would have been a big, though honestly difficult, bonus.
“The team had three main goals this year: show up at MIS with a car, pass the technical inspection, and compete in and finish all events,” says Carl Heideman, the team’s advisor and Hope’s director of process and innovation and CIT. “We were very excited to meet each goal and finished mid-pack in every event.”
In fact, in the end, the Hope car was one of only 65 to finish each event (business presentation, engineering design, cost/manufacturing analysis, acceleration, cornering, autocross and endurance/fuel economy) and placed 77th overall out of 115 cars. Hailing from one of only two four-year liberal arts colleges at the national and international competition (the other four-year school finished 109th), the Hope team, with 15 members strong, placed higher than better-sourced university teams like Michigan Tech, US Air Force Academy, Rutgers University, Lawrence Tech, and Brown University. The first-place finisher was the Universität Stuttgart from Germany, and Oregon State University topped the U.S. entries at fourth.
“This project is really not about the competition and it’s not about a car,” Heideman declares. “It’s a metaphor for an education.”
Formula SAE is not simply a race but a well-rounded competition organized by SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) International in which students design a formula-style race car, build it from the ground up, raise their own funds, and develop their car for a variety of static and dynamic events. Each co-curricular team creates its prototype based on a series of rules spelled out in a guidebook about 300 pages long. These rules ensure on-track safety as well as promote the development of engineering skills.
This was Hope’s second foray into the Formula SAE designing, building, and racing world. In 2010, a Hope team finished 76th, garnering Rookie of the Year honors. This year’s team, though, improved in every event score over the 2010 team except acceleration.
“This project is really not about the competition and it’s not about a car,” Heideman declares. “It’s a metaphor for an education. When you talk to students, they will tell you they learned a ton about project management, about team dynamics and about relationships. And along the way, they learned a little bit about engineering, too.”
Powered by a motorcycle engine, fabricated from frame to axles and costing no more than $30,000 dollars to create, the Hope car was admittedly not an innovative one but it was very reliable and robust, Heideman says. Heavier than most of the other cars it competed against, the car was built by the team to stay true to its business logic and design case. It was built with the amateur weekend racer in mind.
Freshman Jarrett Matson from Mahwah, New Jersey, has been interested in anything that moves with an engine since he was very young. A mechanical engineering major, he was drawn to the SAE team not only due to his future aspirations to work in the automotive industry but also because he wanted to learn how to weld better. He did that and along the way learned a more global lesson.
“The most valuable thing I’ve learned from making this car is how to work on a team with other people,” reflects Matson. “I do well working by myself, but that’s not how this works. With this project, I had to figure out ways to communicate better, ways to motivate people, ways to collaborate. We spent a lot of time together working on this car. Sometimes it went well, sometimes not so well. We just had to work it out.”
“This team has taught me how to handle success, but also has taught me to be able to admit and move past failure. I believe this is the greatest quality about this team.”
Senior team captain Ryan McConnell from Cadillac, Michigan, told Patti Engineering, one of the team’s sponsors, that “Hope College Formula SAE is more to me than just a club, or an on-campus organization. This team is a set of friends, and it shows through all the work that we do. If it were not for this team, I would not have the practical experience of engineering that I need to truly be a successful engineer. This team has taught me how to handle success, but also has taught me to be able to admit and move past failure. I believe this is the greatest quality about this team. We all have learned to tell others that we are wrong, and we have now developed the skills to move on and fix those mistakes and failures.”
One example of the beauty, frustration, joy, and reality of team dynamics was best displayed during the endurance event of the competition. The team encountered a snafu but worked to solve the crucial problem with less than 15 seconds to spare, then drove the final five laps first in rain, then in sleet. (The weather was not pretty in Michigan late last week.) It was a terrific example of creative problem solving, putting liberal arts, critical thinking to good use.
“The students really demonstrated the attributes and values of a Hope College education,” summarizes Heideman. “They made friends, helped others, impressed officials, competed vigorously, and stayed humble and composed throughout.”