ASU Baja SAE: Off-roading to the future

Monday, June 25, 2018

Arizona State University’s Baja SAE team achieved their second-best overall performance with a ninth-place finish out of 98 teams at the Baja SAE Oregon competition in Portland, Oregon. This marks the team’s best overall finish in a Baja SAE event since their eighth-place finish at Baja SAE Oregon in 2015.

Baja SAE Oregon, one of three Baja SAE competitions held nationwide in 2018 by the Society of Automotive Engineers, simulates real-world engineering design projects and their challenges.

Each team is provided an Intek Model 19 engine that is donated by small-engine manufacturer Briggs & Stratton Corporation. With each team having an identical engine, the real test comes down to the design of the car itself, which includes accounting for the vehicle’s frame, suspension, steering, drivetrain/powertrain, operator comfort, brakes and other systems vital to its operation.

The ASU team placed third overall in the design category, a testament to the overall talents of the team and the best-ever result in the category for ASU.

ASU’s Baja SAE team, composed of about 15 active team members, is based in the Simulator Building on the Polytechnic campus. Lecturer James Contes and instrument maker/designer Rhett Sweeney are the team’s faculty advisers.

Building the car

At the beginning of each academic year the team sets goals of what they would like to accomplish to build their car. The process starts with the design phase.

“Once we have the design finalized, we run through a series of software simulations and compare the results to our theoretical hand calculations,” said Fernando Salgado, a mechanical engineering systems major and the team’s 2018–19 chief engineer. “When we are sure that we have completely optimized the design, we move on to building and manufacturing. Once the car is completely built, we move on to real-world testing and driver training.”

The team was divided up into various sections and modeled like a small company.

“The team manager is at the top of the tree and oversees both the business and engineering sides of the organization,” said Jun Sasaki, a mechanical engineering systems major who served as team president in 2017–18 and will transition to team manager in 2018–19. “Under the manager is a president that oversees all things business and a chief engineer that oversees design and manufacturing. Under each of those are other team leads for subsystems such as suspension, powertrain and social media.”

The team leads meet once a week to discuss goals and timelines, with the rest of the team also meeting weekly to stay updated. The organization is designed so that members can come in at almost any time of the week when their schedule allows to work on anything they are tasked with. 

“Design reviews are held early and often at the beginning of each season,” says Nick Pascente, who graduated in December 2017 with a BSE in mechanical engineering systems and served as team manager during both 2016­­–17 and 2017–18. “All subsystem engineering leads provide feedback verifying that each system design and its components are fulfilling the goals set forth at the start of the season.”

Once all team leads have agreed on each subsystem and component design, and any integration issues have been discussed and resolved, the team begins the manufacturing and testing phases of the vehicle build.

The ASU Baja SAE team in Portland, Oregon, for 2018 Baja SAE Oregon competition. Front row (from left): Cameron Foley, Mark Feliz, Fernando Salgado, Mikayla Castillo, Coleman Cookston, Jay Barnish and Garrett Bechtel. Back row (from left): Rhett Sweeney, Carlos Martinez, Nick Pascente, Rene Diaz, Jim Contes, Jun Sasaki, Matt Walsh, Jeshua Cloud, Bryan Roquemore and Louie Peralta. Photo courtesy of ASU Baja SAE

Building themselves

The car isn’t the only thing that gets built up throughout the year. Gaining knowledge and practical real-world engineering applications help team members prepare for their careers.

Baja SAE is one of SAE International's Collegiate Design Series competitions designed to prepare undergraduate and graduate engineering students in a variety of disciplines for future employment in mobility-related industries and help expose them to recruiters from leading companies.

“I am enjoying my ASU Polytechnic experience because in earning my degree there, I've had the honor of being a member of the ASU Baja SAE team. This has provided me a true, hands-on, engineering learning experience," said Mikayla Castillo, a mechanical engineering systems major and team president for 2018–19. “Most of the things I've learned in Baja, I've yet to learn in an actual class. Another very exciting Baja experience has been the opportunity to speak with several employers that hire and do on-site interviews at races, which resulted in being offered a job by Volvo. This is what every student is ultimately going to school for: an employer that recognizes our passion and talents, who is willing to make us part of their team."

Nick Pascente says that being part of the Baja SAE team has helped make him a well-rounded engineer.

“The Baja SAE club helps students develop an extremely useful set of values and soft skills within a team setting,” Pascente said. “Students who participate in design competition teams, such as Baja SAE, will be better prepared for a career in their chosen discipline and will be sought out by industry leaders.”

Sasaki appreciates that being a part of the club allows access to the labs and equipment.

“Learning skills like welding and machining have been a rewarding experience and a great way to differentiate [ourselves] from the average student at ASU,” Sasaki said. “We have awesome faculty advisers that bring real-world knowledge and skills to the team. The access to tools and resources as a Baja Team member on the Polytechnic campus is beyond anything I could have imagined.”

Salgado, who was born and raised in Phoenix, says he was always exposed to off-roading growing up.

“This is one of the main reasons why I joined the Baja SAE club,” he said. “The other reason is that all the knowledge we learn in class can be put into practice in this real-world application. The best part of being in the SAE Baja club is that I get to do all the things I enjoy — off-roading, racing and building — all of this in one club, one team.”

Building the community

ASU Baja SAE also gives back to the community by volunteering along with SAE's A World In Motion program. This is a program that delivers hands-on engineering activities to middle school students, with the goal to have science, technology, engineering and mathematics incorporated in every K-8 classroom, and have it be part of the normal curriculum.

“We teach middle school students how to build a battery-operated car with a team, which they work with throughout the semester learning all about gear ratios,” said Castillo, referring to a simple mechanical concept describing the relationship between the number of rotations of two gears. “The middle school students, in turn, are able to complete three tasks: a small acceleration in under three seconds, a hill climb and second steeper hill climb.”

Building the future

With an overall top 10 finish under their belt during the 2017–18 season, ASU’s Baja SAE team looks forward not only to another season of steep competition, but also to expose engineering students to new opportunities.

Now a mechanical engineering graduate student, Pascente will move on to a mentor role next year and is excited to observe and mentor the club's incoming members in the fall semester.

“Getting to watch new members grow from aspiring engineers to full-blown design engineers who have realized the entire engineering cycle from conceptual design, to manufacturing, to validation and testing, to optimization, is incredibly rewarding,” Pascente said. “It is truly an extraordinary transformation to go through.”

Sasaki will lead ASU’s Baja SAE club in competitions in Tennessee, New York and California next season.

“Clubs and organizations like Baja SAE are a great way for students to learn and gain new skills that you would not find in a typical classroom,” Sasaki said. “I appreciate that the university has been so supportive of our organization and clubs like ours. They are investing in a future that makes ASU look good, and I am proud to say that I attend such a great university.”

Video of ASU Baja SAE in Oregon

ASU Baja SAE in Oregon. Video courtesy of Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering