Engineering team builds race buggy for intercollegiate competition next season

A recent work session on the Baja buggy includes Brandon Swayne (left), a junior from Elizabeth City, while Stephanie Tucker, a junior from Jacksonville, takes the driver’s seat. Hidden behind the welding mask is Chandler Champion, a junior from King’s Mountain.

Western Carolina University has a race car team.

It’s not just any race car, but an off-road specialty buggy designed to compete in rugged endurance events sanctioned by the Society of Automotive Engineers and built and maintained by a dedicated group of WCU engineering students.

They compete in the Baja SAE series, an intercollegiate, international competition for undergraduate and graduate students. The series is based on professional off road and endurance events. Baja SAE competition is divided into segments of a hill climb, a standing-start time trial, specialty events such as mud bog runs and culminates in a punishing endurance course challenge. Equally important are the technical inspections to see if the buggy conforms to design requirements and safety constraints.

“This is an extracurricular activity, but it goes well beyond that,” said Sudhir Kaul, associate professor in WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology and team adviser. “They work together to design, create and test, then compete as a team. It is an exercise in engineering with real world situations, which is an invaluable experience.”

The SAE is a U.S.-based, globally active professional and standards developing organization for engineering professionals. The organization devotes resources to projects and programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM education, professional certification and collegiate design competitions.

The WCU team’s first ― and last ― competitive effort was in 2016. That buggy is now retired and a new racing vehicle has been under construction. The team is drawing from its knowledge gained from the previous outing and taking the 2017 season off, so to speak, while the students work hard on the ground-up fabrication and preparation for the 2018 season.

The vehicles must meet regulations and perform under stringently enforced rules. All engines used in the series are unmodified Briggs and Stratton motors, with no modifications allowed. The chassis, roll cage and other components are handcrafted, and that’s where innovation becomes a factor.

Chandler Champion, a WCU junior from Kings Mountain, said the main changes for the new buggy were cutting weight while staying within minimum requirements and increasing mobility but keeping it sturdy enough to absorb the punishment of off road racing.

“And stay within budget,” Champion added. “We are competing against bigger schools and better-funded teams, so we have to be creative. We’re kicking the front suspension up about 10 percent for next season, so we can climb over rocks and obstacles better. We’re going to smaller tires with aluminum rims. We find advantages we can put into place that will pass tech inspection and keep us competitive.”

Sudhir Kaul

The team will create a pipeline of experienced students passing along working knowledge to newer members, Kaul said. Skill strengths are shared and the continuity means achieving goals, making mechanical improvements and adjusting the buggy as needed, when needed.

Just getting to the race segments can be a challenge. All elements of the vehicle undergo official scrutiny, such as tests on the effectiveness of brakes, integrity of welds, how lights are functioning and review of safety component installation. “In the competition last year, we had many things to overcome during inspection,” Kaul said. “The team had to correct items that didn’t pass within 24 hours, and some of those things were pretty major. But that’s what it’s about, overcoming obstacles.

“In competition, you can have a great design, but if you have tire failure, it’s worth nothing. I keep telling students, in your head, it all works,” he said. “In reality, it might be another matter. Being in the competition, you observe and learn, including from other teams. You get to ask questions; you get to share experiences.”

William Davidson is a transfer student from Mooresville, a Piedmont town known as the hub of NASCAR racing. He said he hopes to pursue a motorsports career someday and feels the Baja SAE buggy competition is good preparation for a future job in the field.

“We do all the welding, all the (tube) bending, the real nuts and bolts stuff,” he said. “We’ve had challenges, but that’s how you learn. NASCAR is No. 1 for racing, but if I could land with any type of racing for a career, it would be fine with me.”

For more information, contact Kaul at skaul@email.wcu.edu or 828-227-2153.