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Baja is Back: Northwestern Off-Roading Car Team Returns to Competition

Students will race car of their own design April 18 to 21 in the Baja SAE Tennessee Tech

The Northwestern University Baja SAE team will compete at the Tennessee Tech in April.

When you think of car racing, you probably think of waving flags and racetracks — but that’s not the kind of racing you find in Northwestern’s Baja SAE Team.

“You’re going over drops, over rocks, going over creeks, skidding around in the snow,” said Jane Jones, a McCormick junior studying mechanical engineering and the Baja team’s project manager. “It’s so much fun.”

Unlike Northwestern’s Formula SAE team — which designs and races fast, sporty Formula-style racecars — Baja SAE students design and build off-road vehicles that can survive the punishment of rough terrain. That creates a different set of challenges for its members, who must pay close attention to the car’s suspension and safety.

Founded in 1988 by a group of undergraduate engineers, Baja SAE was the first car team on Northwestern’s campus. But membership in the team declined recently, and over the past few years only a couple members kept the team alive. 

Those few members put in hundreds of hours to build their current 467-pound car — and in February, it raced for the first time, in five feet of snow, in a one-day practice competition organized by Michigan Tech. The team placed 17th overall out of 47 competing teams, and each team member had the chance to drive.

Since then, the team has made a membership push, received financial support from the Chicago SAE group, Northwestern’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Boeing, and unveiled a new website and logo.

A member of Northwestern's Baja SAE team races at a practice competition in Tennessee.On April 18, the group will head to Tennessee to participate in the Baja SAE Tennessee Tech, a four-day competition of endurance races, acceleration tests, hill climb, and strength tests, in which the car drags weights behind it. Before the car can participate, inspectors ensure that the cars are properly constructed and safe to drive.

What makes Baja team so exciting, Jones said, is how much control students have over their car’s design. Each team starts with an identical engine — a Briggs & Stratton 10-horsepower Intek Model — but beyond that, the design is fully in the students’ hands.

“If you want multiple gears, reverse, a long car, a short car, more speed, more power — it’s all up to us,” Jones said.

“You just put your foot down, pedal to the metal, and you don’t brake,” she said. “It’s so exciting and so empowering to be driving a car that you and your friends built.”How the team will fare in its first race in five years remains to be seen. But for Jones, competing is less about winning and more about establishing a successful team that will grow for years to come. And, it’s about fun.

For more information about Northwestern University Baja SAE, visit