See all NewsEngineering News

Revamped Formula SAE Team to Race in Michigan

Over the past year, Formula SAE team members learned many new skills – how to weld, how to find sponsors – as they designed and built an open-wheel racecar.

But perhaps most importantly, they learned how to create a team. What started as a few students left over from the group’s first race in 2008 has turned into a 30-member crew of invested engineers who hope to show off their work at the Formula SAE competition at the Michigan International Speedway on May 11-14.

At the event the team will compete in eight categories ranging from design to endurance. Nevertheless, the group just hopes their car will make it through.

“More than half of the teams don’t finish all the events,” said Shonali Ditz, a junior majoring in manufacturing and design engineering. “Our biggest goal is just get there and have nothing fail.”

The team will unveil their car Friday, May 6, from 3 to 7 pm on the lawn next to the Ford Motor Engineering Design Center. McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino and Northwestern President Morton O. Schapiro will speak at 4 p.m.

More than 100 college teams from across the country design, build, and race formula-style cars as part of Formula SAE, an intercollegiate engineering design competition run by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

The Formula SAE team began at Northwestern in 2006; their first car competed in Michigan in 2008. But when the race was over, most of the team members graduated, and the student group faced a lack of leadership and high turnover. When Brendon DiVincenzo took over as project manager in 2010, the team had only seven members.

Nevertheless, the team set a goal to compete in the 2011 race and began designing (and redesigning) a frame, suspension system, and engine to create a car that is light, fast, and easy to handle.

Along the way, team members had in-depth lessons in manufacturing, from designing parts to welding frames to managing product orders. They collaborated with non-engineering students to create publications and sponsorship packets and worked with McCormick Office of Corporate Relations to secure companies as sponsors.

“I also learned how to manage people,” Ditz said. “When you have 30 engineers in a room, and the freshman are asking what they should do -- that’s something you wouldn’t learn in class.”

For DiVincenzo, a senior in civil and mechanical engineering, the group was a way for him to expand his knowledge of cars (which he has thanks to his father) into “the most interesting project I’ve ever had a chance to be part of.”

Just two weeks before the race began, team members were assembling the car in the basement shop of the Ford building. And if something didn’t work?

“You just have to make it run,” DiVincenzo said. “There’s no other option.”

At the four-day race, teams will compete in eight categories: cost, presentation, design, fuel economy, acceleration, skidpad (cornering ability), autocross (maneuverability), and endurance. Teams receive points for each event, and the team with the most cumulative points wins.

Since it is the team’s first trip back in three years, they aren’t expecting a big win. They do hope to do well in the design category, which rewards good engineering principles, DiVincenzo said.

“You are asked to defend and validate your design, which is a great real world scenario,” he said.

Ultimately, the team is most excited for the future: younger group members are now well educated in handling both engineering and business for the group, which should help them create even better cars in the future.

“I’m excited to have a sustainable program here now,” DiVincenzo said. “We’ve reached critical mass. The team is really going to take off in the next couple years.”