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Racing Team Puts Classroom Lessons to the Test

April 18, 2012

UC Merced's Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) team built its first racecar and exhibited it at a national competition last June.

The student club has crafted a more advanced machine this year. The car launches from zero to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds — as fast as a top-of-the-line Porsche.

In May, the team plans to enter the car in the Formula SAE Michigan event at Michigan International Speedway. Judges will evaluate the vehicle and quiz its builders on their design knowledge. And unlike last time, the team plans to race its speed machine this year.

Merced is the only University of California campus sending a Formula SAE team to this year’s Michigan competition May 9 through 12, team member Adam Klick said.

Klick, a management major, said the team takes its cue from UC Merced’s emphasis on interaction between students from different departments and majors.

“We have political science and management majors learning how to weld and engineering majors learning how to do presentations and public speaking,” Klick said. “It’s taking our education and forcing us to apply it to the real world.”

Competition organizer SAE International sponsors student design events in Europe, Australia, Asia, South America and North America. The competitions have student-run “companies” design and build small, Formula-type cars.

Each team also raises money to fund its car. This latter requirement makes business and marketing skills critical to the end result. UC Merced’s team raised funds and designed and fabricated the custom racer for less than $50,000.

The team raised $45,000-plus this year from its many sponsors, including Associated Students of the University of California, Merced, Harbor Freight Tools, Kaydon Bearings, PG&E and Thermofusion.

“A lot of little help makes a big difference,” Klick said. 

This year’s team has grown to about 40 members — up from about 20 last year. The students handle planning, design, budget and other tasks by dividing up jobs like real businesses do.

“It’s a student-led thing,” said Professor Jay Sharping, the club’s faculty advisor. “If (the team) needs help navigating school issues or logistics, I will step in. But it really is the students doing it from top to bottom.”

The team was founded in 2010 by student Dominic Milano, who is serving as technical director this year. A core of dedicated members have each put in more than 2,000 hours each since this year’s project launched.

The car and workshop are housed at Castle Airport Aviation and Development Center in Atwater. The automobile will be displayed on campus during Bobcat Day on April 21.

Team members are confident they will excel at this year’s event in Michigan. But competition results take a back seat to what the group has accomplished already, team president Sheldon Wong said.

“This is a great way to get real-world experience,” said Wong, an engineering major. “I learn more from this process than I learn from books. When I go back to the classroom, things make much more sense.”

Wong said whatever the major, having been part of the racing team is a positive addition to any graduate’s resume.

“It’s a combination of education and experience that businesses value in the real world,” he said.