For most people, smashing up a car or truck is the worst kind of bad news. Even if you escape injury, your vehicle is broken. Insurance helps, but you’re left wondering what’s going to happen to your rates when it’s time to renew. Anything more complicated than a scratch, you might as well give your keys to one of those panhandlers on the parkway.
For the 11 engineering students at the core of this year’s Memorial Baja team, it’s a different story. That’s because they’re good at math, good with their hands, and they know how to build a car from scratch. Well, not completely from scratch. And, it’s not exactly the kind of car you drive to work.
But they do build a car by hand — an off-roading kind of car, and they make everything but the engine. Which, truth be told, they probably COULD build if they tried. After all, it’s only an oversized lawn mower engine. But it’s donated by the manufacturer, so it saves time and money. Every team has the same unit, so when they compete at the big Baja event, nobody has an advantage when it comes to power.
It’s called Baja after the famous off-road endurance race. You’ve probably seen pictures of heavily-modified trucks and Jeeps blasting their way across the Mexican desert. This year’s location was more down to earth and closer to home: Caterpillar Inc. testing grounds in Peoria, Illinois. There’s a limit of 100 entries. Teams win or lose based on their ability to design a frame that can survive a roll-over and engineer a suspension that can climb over rocks, and build a gearbox that won’t seize up.
So when the driver of this year’s Memorial Baja entry has an accident, it’s not really an accident. It’s a learning opportunity. What happens when you’re testing in the field. A chance to ponder the laws of physics and see what happens when, for example, a moving object comes to a very sudden stop. Measure how much force it takes to bend steel tubing or break a weld.
“Destructive testing,” they call it. A good label when you need to convey a sense of violence and danger while hinting at a higher purpose. You could also describe it as “having a little fun.”
On a cloudy Sunday in June, the Driv.r camera finds the Memorial team “having a little fun” with the mud puddles and bike trails in a gravel pit out behind the Goulds. The young engineers who built this car are relaxed because they’ve just returned from the big event in Illinois. They were up against experienced, well-funded teams from all over North America, and they did well. They came in the middle of the pack. The pressure’s off.
They’ve got a fully-stocked machine shop and almost a full year to redesign and rebuild their vehicle. Make it lighter, faster, more agile. So now it’s time for some field testing of the most destructive kind.
Judging by the video, they learned a lesson or two. Have a look.