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Students design, build and race car

Stretch drive

(April 27, 2000, Gazette)

Fast lane

Team 2000 Formula MUN racers (L-R) Chris Higdon, Shane White, Bryan Mercer, and Dave Earle tinker with the car’s engine.

Photo by Chris Hammond

By Susen Johnson

Remember those model car kits you could get at Christmas? The kind with fifty million pieces and glue that stuck your fingers to the kitchen table more than anything else?

That was easy compared to this.

Four students in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science — Shane White, Brian Mercer, Dave Earle, and Chris Higdon, have decided to build a formula-style racing car for competition at the Formula SAE — an international university-level design competition event judging concept, design, fabrication, cost, endurance, fuel economy, and of course, speed.

“It’s not so much an oval track racing event as it is a series of judged events,” Mr. Higdon explained. “There’s a lot more to it. You can actually get negative points if you neglect things that are important.”

The team will travel to Pontiac, Michigan, to participate in the event, to be held May 17-21. One of 20 Canadian teams participating this year (out of 107 total), the Formula MUN team hopes to do well, and is actively seeking sponsorships from the local community.

A project over 15 months in the making, Formula MUN’s team even went on an “information gathering” trip to Pontiac last year, returning with over 18 rolls of film and 400 photographs of what the competition did and how it performed. They plan to put their information to good use in a solid placing — or even a win — this year.

The team has been challenged by the physical separation caused by their varying work-term placements — they’re only in town together for four months at a stretch, and then, they are supposed to be studying.
“It seems like we just get a bit of momentum going with building the car and then we all have to go away again,” Mr. Higdon said.

Added Mr. Mercer: “Building a car is only part of the project. It’s also getting down there and back, getting the sponsorships, all the presentations, the cost report, the meetings.”

But it’s been a real learning experience, and the team says the learning curve has been valuable one.

“We were starting from square one,” Mr. White said. “We didn’t know anything, so we had to start from scratch.”

As Mr. Mercer explained: “A lot of our stuff in school is all theoretical, you’re given a problem and you solve the problem on paper. So this is more real. The first problem was finding all the stuff we need to do it, so that’s pretty real.”

Although the students have a faculty adviser in Andy Fisher, they’re supposed to do as much as they can independently. Assistance comes in the form of the Formula SAE Internet mailing list — a community of the untried and the experienced dedicated to sharing their questions and their knowledge.

Coming from Memorial, the students are challenged by the costs attendant with living away from the racing centres in the middle of the continent, but they see being unknown and underestimated as a strategic advantage in the long run.

“We think it’s been designed well,” Mr. Higdon explained. “And because we’re a new team we’re not limited by previous experience, we’re not in a rut.”

If everything works out and the team brings home the honour of a win — and the lucrative cash award that goes with it — the team is committed to reinvesting right back into the effort for next year, buying a new fuel system or a new set of rims that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to afford.

“We spent so much time on this, and we want to make sure it continues, so we’ve got a lot of younger students involved, as well,” said Mr. Mercer. “And so next year, they won’t have to start from scratch.”

“We made the team an official society so it’s open to anyone (in engineering),” Mr. White added, “as long as they want to be involved in the project.”

For more information about the team’s progress or to support the effort, check out www.engr.mun.ca/~raceteam or e-mail higdon@engr.mun.ca.