Building a winning engine

Mechanical engineering majors Doug Dopps, a junior, and Jake Vetter, a senior, work on the 2011 race car. Photo by Cassie Czarnetzke

With 89 horsepower, Washington’s Formula Society of American Engineers’ (SAE) new 2011 race car will weigh 450 pounds and can accelerate to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. Formula SAE has been designing, building, and testing these race cars for more than 23 years.

Formula SAE is both a class and a club of 50 students at the UW, who work together to prepare for end-of-the-year student-design competitions. Formula SAE is an international organization that competes annually against other universities around the world. The students design and build the race car themselves, and each student builds the part he or she designed.

The students start out with a blank design at the beginning of the year and end with a fully built car. They take about seven months to build the race car, using the machine shop on campus, and the last few months before competition are spent testing to make sure it functions properly. When Formula SAE first was formed in 1989, there were only five or six other universities to compete against. This year, the team will compete in Nebraska against 80 other universities and 120 at the international competition in Germany. The competitions will take place in Lincoln, Nebr., in June and Germany in August. Formula SAE Technical Director Daniel Wageman and member Garett Ochs believe they are going to blow competitors away with this year’s car.


A wheel center and hub, machined in the Formula SAE shop, awaits fitting for the 2012 car.

“I have very high expectations [for the competition],” Wageman said.

To better their chances of winning, the group has transitioned from a Honda F4i, a 4-cylinder engine, to a Yamaha WR450, a 1-cylinder engine. With a smaller engine, the students believe the car will have better acceleration.

“[The goal is to get] the engine to operate to the maximum capability,” Tim Scheumann said.

The first event of the competition is the endurance event, designed to test the car’s reliability. The last and most important part of the competition tests how fast the car is.

“Only about 17 to 20 universities finish the endurance event,” Wageman said about how competitive the event is.

While in the past, Formula SAE hired a professional race-car driver, now a group of eight students trains year-round to learn how to drive the race car to compete.

With a smaller engine, Ochs said, Formula SAE will be able to go faster without the weight from the bigger engine holding them back. Most Formula SAE teams use a motorcycle engine for their race car.

“We will be able to grip the road better and take corners faster,” Ochs said.


Junior Zach May works on designing the steering system for Formula SAE’s 2012 car. It normally takes seven months for the students to design and build the car from scratch.

He added that weight is everything when it comes to racing the car, and they plan to test-run the product several times before the big day.

“We’re looking at testing a lot more this year, making sure that anything that’s going to break is going to break ahead of time,” Wageman said.

The group is split into two sections: the administration team and the technical team. Once these are determined, they are split into subcategories, and everyone collaborates to complete the overall project.

“Everything is being developed at the same time, so you’re constantly communicating with the people who are making parts that interface with yours,” Ochs said.

Most of the car designers are engineering students, and Formula SAE scopes out business majors for finances of the car and graphic-arts designers for advertising. Many students majoring in engineering don’t obtain the experience of building what they design in a classroom. Getting practice from Formula SAE is beneficial for the future careers of engineers when looking for a job out of college. However, Wageman said working for Formula SAE can be a huge commitment.

“It’s a full-time job for a lot of people,” he said.


Another challenge for the group is budget limitations. To complete the perfect race car, the UW Formula SAE team has a budget of $72,500. The UW gives $2,500, and members themselves raise the remaining annual budget of $70,000 for their materials and services. Most of their funding comes from alumni and companies such as Boeing, Coastal Enterprises, Bayview Composites, Blue Origin, and about 70 others.

Formula SAE contacts its suppliers for every part they need to build the car, which involves different materials from ample sources. Without sponsors to help with funding, the team would not be able to build and race a car. When machinery isn’t available, the group goes through the process of sending proposals to the ASUW Student Technology Fee to get machines and tools necessary to complete the car in a timely manner.

A year ago, mechanical malfunctions halted their chances of winning, and the team finished in 20th place. One year before that, the UW Formula SAE team won third place out of the 80 universities competing.

After working hard for close to nine months, they will finally be ready to compete against other accredited universities in the summer and get ready to start their new and improved engines.

Reach contributing writer Kaitlynn Miller at development@dailyuw.com.

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