Formula SAE: Co-ed Wrenching, Racing, And Parking Garage Drifting

Many Jalopnik commenters can wrench on their car, a few have participated in LeMons, but how many can say they helped design, build, and race a car? I can.

I'm talking about the Formula SAE series, the international student competition to design, build, and race a single-seater. Every year over a hundred universities from throughout the U.S. and around the world come together at Michigan International Speedway to compete against each other. This is as legitimate a form of motorsport as any other. These sub-500 pound racers use carbon fiber monocoques or tubular steel space frames and have engines below 600 CC's; some have forced induction but all have to breathe through a 20 mm restriction. There is extensive use of carbon fiber for superchargers, wheels, and suspensions. The cars are loud, they spit flames, and they will accelerate from zero to 60 in just 3 heartbeats, all while only producing under a hundred horsepower. It's a fast-paced environment and as soon as competition is over, the design of next year's car is under way. We're going to take an inside peek at the design and build process of Columbia University's Formula SAE team, otherwise known as Knickerbocker Motorsports.

It's 10 am, Friday, the air smells like Jägermeister, the night was spent partying, and we're headed towards Seely W. Mudd, Columbia's engineering building. To be more precise, we're headed towards the engineering building's basement, which forms part of Columbia University's extensive tunnel system and contains a nuclear reactor right next door to Knickerbocker Motorsports' shop. The sign on the door to the basement reads Formula SAE, an arrow pointing down to the shop. Inside, the team has manufacturing machinery and a steel space frame chassis sitting on a table. They mean business and they run the team like one.

The Organization

In case you're not aware, cars are complicated, really complicated, so the team is divided into groups, each with its own head. There is a chief engineer, a president, and a vice president. In addition to these offices there is finance group to maintain the monies, a sponsorship group seeks out potential donors from the automotive and engineering world, and a public relations group deals with alumni, students, and Columbia's administration. There is a budget, there is a deadline and it must be met. Knickerbocker Motorsports is just like any professional race team out there.

The Facilities

The good thing about being at a university is that equipment is provided for you! The student computer lab two floors above KM's shop is filled with 24 inch monitors and CAD workstations as far as the eye can see. Columbia's Mechanical Engineering department shares their machine shop, containing three CNC mills, a CNC lathe, and a rapid prototyping machine, with KM.

The Members

Here's a statistic: When I was a Mechanical Engineering student at Columbia, my class was made up of 10% women. There were 5 women and 50 guys. A lot of engineers on here can attest to the lack of females in engineering. Well, KM is different. It has female members! Women like to wrench too, guys. Some of them are engineers too! Women also like engineering. Most of the students are mechanical engineers, but there are engineers from other disciplines and even non-engineers.

The Team's History

This is something that hasn't been written, but rather, has been passed down from member to member. However, the team's results are recorded. The team first started to compete in 2001 in Michigan and finished in dead last along with a few other teams. The results improved from 2002 to 2006, but only slightly. In 2007 the team did not compete. The 2008 Formula SAE competition in Michigan rolled around and Columbia Formula SAE brought a car they spent two years working on. That year Columbia was able to finish all events and placed 67th out of 104 teams that finished. In 2009, the team placed 64th out of 91 teams that finished. This drew attention and membership grew. At the 2010 competition, KM place 81st out of 102 teams after a coolant hose burst during the endurance race.

Now

The 2011 competition is still eight and a half months away and KM has already finished designing their car and will begin fabrication next week. So what's it like to have to design and build a car from scratch? It's not easy. The members have to balance their schoolwork and time spent designing the car and working in the shop. Where does sleep come in? Formula SAE teams don't sleep and despite partying Thursday evening, the KM team can be seen working in the shop at 10 am the next morning. Of course, a Red Bull mini fridge and a cooler shaped like a Red Bull can full of Red Bull helps too. These are kept fully stocked during the build process.

In the next few weeks, hours will be sent printing drawings, welding the chassis together, cutting and grinding tabs to mount various things, and many more hours will be spent coding the CNC machines to manufacture various components. Once everything is fabricated, it is assembled, the Honda CBR600 F4i engine is mounted, and a fiberglass body is placed over everything. The car is then pushed into the parking garage just outside of KM's shop. Columbia, located in New York City, has no place to properly test their vehicle and the only driving is done between pillars. This year the team has high hopes but it'll take many late nights, thousands of hours of labor, and a lot of passion.

Formula SAE is more than just winning a competition. It's something that you have to experience firsthand. If you were ever part of a Formula SAE team at any point in your college career, leave your thoughts in the comments.

Photo Credit: Laura LaPerche

This piece was written and submitted by a Jalopnik reader and may not express views held by Jalopnik or its staff. But maybe they will become our views. It all depends on whether or not this person wins by whit of your eyeballs in our reality show, "Who Wants to be America's Next Top Car Blogger?"