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 Racing to Learn

The Formula SAE Team at UMD: Building a Race Car, Building a Skill Set

Imagine designing a Formula style race car. Now imagine you actually have to build it from the ground up. Sound daunting? Not to students involved in the Formula SAE Team at UMD. Associate Professor Daniel Pope from Swenson College of Science and Engineering’s (SCSE) Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering acts as the team’s advisor and facilitator, while other SCSE professors contribute technical expertise via individual instruction.

SAE Race car team
(From left) Associate Professor Daniel Pope with UMD Formula SAE team members Owen Dickinson, Dana Johnson, Ben Gundermann, and Gavin Potts. Last year's UMD SAE race car is in the foreground.
With this network of support, the students are up for the challenge. And because last year’s team successfully built and raced a car, the students have the opportunity to take what was learned during the previous competition and improve upon the new car’s design and performance.

The racing event is organized by SAE International, a society for engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive, and commercial-vehicle industries. Each year SAE International hosts Formula style racing competitions across the country. The UMD team will compete in the Midwest event May 13-18 at the Jackson International Speedway in Jackson, Michigan. However it’s an event, not characterized by fierce competition and extravagant prizes, but a collegiate spirit of cooperation among some 120 university teams.

The Plan and the Process
The design and engineering of the car are dictated by a 108-page SAE International manual filled with rules and regulations. “That’s the Formula,” Pope noted. The book outlines hundreds of details from wall thickness, body composite, and fastening systems. And lest, someone think that a school could just throw a whole lot of money at the car to build something awesome, the competition also judges teams on a cost report detailing what it would cost to mass produce 1,000 models. Additionally, the students participate in a sales presentation, pitching their product to automotive industry leaders from Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

Dana Johnson, who worked on last year’s car, is a double major in mechanical engineering and industrial engineering and is the race car project manager this year. Johnson drove last year’s car and because of that, he learned a lot about what this year’s team should focus on. Last year they concentrated on speed but, because of how the track is laid out, they never even got the car up to the highest gear. This year they are reducing the weight of their vehicle by half in order to greatly improve acceleration and fuel economy. They are also focusing on driver ergonomics.

During the competition, the car will initially be judged on static events. The first is the technical inspection. Many teams won’t pass that phase and won’t proceed to the next levels of the competition. It was a huge accomplishment for the UMD team to pass the technical inspection last year. “It’s very unusual to pass the first time,” Johnson stated.

SAE tilt-test
Last year's UMD SAE race car during the tilt-test at the SAE International competition.
After the technical inspection, the sales presentation, engineering design, and cost and manufacturing review, the car moves to the dynamic events. These consist of an acceleration test, a skid-pad test which measures the car’s cornering ability on a flat-surface; a noise test to measure decibel levels; a master switch test to confirm that all electrical can be cut off immediately in case of an emergency, and a brake test. The car is also subjected to a tilt-test in which the car is literally tipped 67 degrees on a tilt table to make sure it won’t roll over on a sharp incline.

The autocross event evaluates the car’s maneuverability and handling. All of the drivers will be UMD students who have done some racing. Johnson hopes to drive again. It’s a unique experience driving a Formula style car. “There’s no power steering. It’s a different feeling than a regular car,” Johnson said. Also drivers are strapped in with their arms locked in place. Claustrophobics need not apply.

The last event is the endurance test. This not only evaluates the cars endurance, it also measures the vehicle’s fuel economy. Two drivers drive ten laps each. Teams get points for each of the events with 1,000 points maximum possible. The UMD team hopes to place in the top fifty.

Gaining New Skills

To say that the students are learning a lot through this process would be an understatement. Freshman Gavin Potts learned new software called Solidworks™ which enables him to design everything in three dimensions. The software can then simulate stresses, loads, and forces, anticipating design problems early on. Owen Dickinson who is managing the steering and brake team believes he is learning faster by applying theories to actual situations. “I feel like I’m ahead of the game,” he said.

Johnson also is learning about managing a team. “It teaches you to work with people. There are a lot of opinions. You have to juggle people’s input,” he said. Johnson enjoys that this project is not theory based. It encompasses the entire manufacturing process, taking a vehicle from concept to realization. “We can say we designed it, built it, raced it,” Johnson said. “Those are big deals when you’re applying for a job,” Pope added.

The competition among the various schools is friendly. Because learning is a large part of the process, there is a lot of cooperation among teams. There are discussion groups online, and students can post questions to get feedback from other students around the country.

The UMD students have had to learn some fundraising too, reaching out to local companies for materials and supplies. “We need a race trailer, two helmets, even a racing go-cart for driver training,” Johnson said. The students have held fundraisers to raise cash, including a car smash where students paid to take a whack at a junker. They held the event during finals week and made $500.

To find out what kind of supplies and materials are needed for the UMD Formula SAE race car, individuals may contact Daniel Pope at 218-726-6685 or by email at Those interested in making a financial donation may contact, Tricia Bunten, Development Director for the Swenson College of Science and Engineering at 218-726-6695, toll-free at 1-866-999-6995, or by email at

In the meantime the students, with guidance from Pope and other SCSE professors, continue to work on their race car - designing, testing, and evaluating. The project seems to invigorate the students. As Johnson has discovered, it’s easier to learn “when it’s something you have a passion to work on.


Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann,

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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Last modified on 04/22/11 02:37 PM
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