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Student Group Races to New Heights

Formula SAE team members pose with the car they used in this year's world championship

Christopher Drew, team captain, Pedro Viteri, engine lead, and Mark Wise (seated), team manager, pose with the 2011 Formula SAE car.

It needs to go faster. In order to go faster it needs to be lighter. To be lighter it needs different materials. Welcome to the university's Society of Automotive Engineer's formula racing team, where the motto is "0-60 in three seconds? Yes, please."

Better known as Formula SAE, this student group has been housed in the Cockrell School of Engineering for more than 30 years, and led by faculty adviser and mechanical engineering Professor Dr. Ron Matthews since its inception.

"When I was an undergrad, I hadn't practiced any engineering before getting my degree, so I wasn't confident in my ability to do engineering," Matthews said. "I thought by giving students some kind of forum where they could apply what they learned in their courses to an actual project, it could improve their engineering education."

And Formula SAE has done that.

Hands-on Advantages

For more than five years, Christopher Drew, a recent mechanical engineering graduate and the team's captain for three years, helped design and machine cars, as well as lead the team in getting cars ready for the worldwide Formula SAE competition.

"A big thing is hands-on knowledge," Drew said.

Starting from scratch each year, a dedicated group of 10-15 Formula SAE students conceptualize, design and build a racecar to compete against teams from around the globe.

Generally, the team spends the first couple of months in the design phase before starting to assemble the car in early fall. Once the car is built, the team spends the following months test driving and looking for improvements.

This yearlong process helps expose students to real world engineering applications.

"There is no class that teaches you hands on knowledge – turning wrenches, machining, welding, turning bolts," Drew said, adding that a lot of team members have an advantage in the classroom because of the work they do on the car. "Once you go into those classes, you've done it so you have a good idea of what it is, what it looks like and what happens when you're doing it, so basically it's like doing a little bit of extra credit."

Matthews said he notices similar advantages for Formula SAE students.

"It helps students bring what they learned [while working on the car] into lecture," he said. "They are applying what they learn to a real piece of hardware and it solidifies it in their mind and helps them a lot."

Another benefit for the team members, Matthews said, is being exposed to new engineering technology and tools. "Engineering technology has changed tremendously since 1980. Now students have all kinds of engineering tools at their disposal that they can use to help design and fabricate the car."

Moving Toward a Faster Future

Formula SAE team at 2010 competition

Although the team may have access to the latest tools and technology, at times the affordability of the materials needed to fabricate the fastest car can become an obstacle.

"Overall, racing in general is kind of expensive," said Mark Wise, the team's manager and a fourth-year finance major in the McCombs School of Business. "What we have been running the last couple of years is a steel tube car. We could always go carbon fiber, but there is a huge cost differentiation there.

"The more sponsorships we secure, the more we can learn how to use these materials, so there is an educational benefit as well as a benefit to making the car that much lighter and faster."

And lighter and faster are definitely two of the team's goals for the 2012 worldwide competition — it hopes to place among the top five teams.

This summer, the team took eighth place out of 80 teams, making it the best the team has done in three decades.

"When it was announced that we had made the top 10, that was a good memory," said Drew. "Just walking up to the stage — it was worth all the hard work in the last five years."