Pedal to the Medal

Between full-time classes, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and social lives, the average college student has a lot to juggle. For a group of mechanical engineering students at the University of Evansville who make up the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Baja student design team, they have even more to cram into their busy schedules — hours poured into planning, building, and testing a car each year to drive in competition only to be destroyed.

“The goal of the competition is to test the vehicle to its limits,” says Jared Fulcher, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UE and the faculty advisor for the group. “It’s not about smooth rides and how fast you can go. It’s about surviving.”

SAE Baja offers students the chance to race in a competition against other universities by building a single-seat, all-terrain sporting vehicle that will be driven in one of three courses across the U.S. each year. This year, the UE Baja team will compete in the SAE Baja Kansas race in Pittsburg, Kansas, from May 17 to 20. UE actively has competed for the last five years, but has had teams since the late 1980s.

“The competition has gone on a long time, so placing top 10 means something,” says Fulcher. “And placing top three is really difficult.”

For the UE SAE Baja members, the team of around 20 students is more than an extracurricular activity or university club. It serves as an integrated design project for seniors and helps all students involved earn course credit. Seniors hire underclassmen to help with the project; and while the group is open to all disciplines, it currently is comprised entirely of mechanical engineering students.

“We all really love the project,” says Trevor Hodgson, a senior mechanical engineering student from Newburgh, Indiana, and the UE SAE Baja project lead. “It is a really great learning experience being able to design car components and see them built and see the limitations.”

“The benefit first and foremost is they get to take theory out of the classroom and apply it,” says Fulcher. “Two, they get to be on a team. As an engineer, you never work alone. They actually start leading projects.”

Last year, the team placed 90th out of around 100 teams. One year, the group placed 50th out of 100. In the past, the members have repurposed, modified, and improved the pervious year’s car; however, this year they are building from the ground up, using SAE Baja’s intricate and comprehensive rulebook.

“It’s about a 120-page rulebook,” says Hodgson. “We have to adhere to every rule in it — how wide the car can be. It specifies the engine, specifies different guard equipment. The goal is if this one performs well, we can take the parts that do work well and improve upon it. Building from the ground up is definitely more stressful. It is sometimes difficult to design and build a car concurrently.”

At the event, the team’s car will undergo an inspection before the race by SAE Baja officials who will determine what changes need to be made in order to meet each and every specification in the rulebook.

“It is different,” says senior team member Chris Wigand from Jasper, Indiana. “In years past, they kind of went off what they did previously. This year it is a complete redesign.”

With all the work to do to build a car from scratch, there are many hours of work needed from each team member. To be part of the design team, members have to meet hour requirements, but those prove to only be the minimum level of participation for most students.

“You could easily spend five to six hours at a time on the project,” says Hodgson.

“A lot of design work is done over the summer,” says Fulcher. “That gives them a leg up.”

In the fall, design on the car continues and decisions are made based on analyses of the documents. By the beginning of December, the group has to have a design report prepared to present to the mechanical engineering faculty at UE. Based on approval of the report, building begins in the spring and is completed in time for the competition.

“I’d say I prefer the design work over the fabrication,” says Hodgson. “I like trying to formulate how certain pieces are going to work and acquiring as much knowledge as I can about how a certain vehicle is going to work.”

The ultimate goal for UE SAE Baja is to have a car that can withstand a four-hour endurance race on a track whose features are purposefully designed to tear the car apart. However, one of the other purposes of the race is to interact with other teams from different universities and develop ideas and strategies for future projects.

“This year our biggest advantage was we have so many people on this team who have so much experience — 54 years of experience combined,” says Hodgson. “That gives us such an advantage. We’ve all seen failures. We’ve all seen issues. This year, we really wanted to set up a car that was stable and just functionally good. We wanted to get past those issues and set a good baseline for the team to build upon.”

For more information about the University of Evansville, call 812-488-2000 or visit

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