Baja Buccaneers

It is a safe assumption that regardless of a student’s interests, ECU can match a student organization or club to just about anyone.

Last year alone, the Student Organization Center oversaw more than 220 student groups, including pre-professional associations, club sports, faith-based organizations, social groups, service organizations, and honor societies. These groups represent the university at local, state, national, and international levels, and contribute to ECU’s reputation as a world-class institution.

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ECU Motorsports members (from left) James Mills, Jordan Best, and Brandon Williamson pose with their baja-class racer.

Sophomore Jordan Best met his match last summer when members of the ECU chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers introduced their club at student orientation. Best, a mechanical engineering major from Raleigh with a deep passion for all things automotive, signed up on the spot.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is an international body that works to ensure that automotive industries will continue to have diverse, qualified candidates entering the workforce by promoting science and mathematics all over the world, especially on college campuses. It sponsors competitions each year that put classroom training into action by challenging students to design, build, and test the performance of a real vehicle in a competitive environment. These competitions draw more than 4,500 students from 500 universities on six continents.

Now entering its fifth year, ECU’s chapter, or ECU Motorsports, as they are also known, compete in the SAE Mini Baja design category where the cars use knobby tires and aggressive suspension to handle the rigors of off-road racing.

Brandon Williamson is the president of ECU’s SAE chapter. In 2005, he and three friends founded the club with the help of their faculty advisor Dr. Gerald Micklow, the Department of Engineering, and the Student Organization Center. Since then, the club has averaged around 10 members per year, attracting the most in 2007–2008 when the club had 18 members.

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Each spring ECU Motorsports competes at one of the international competitions sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

“Everybody wanted to drive the car,” he said.

Membership in the club is not limited to engineering students. Any registered student who wishes to join the club, may do so. In fact, of the four founding members, two were construction management majors.

“We have two people in the club that had no prior experience working on cars. They just wanted to come in and see what it's about,” said Best. “Whether you know a lot about the automotive industry or not, its still a lot of fun. You get your hands dirty.”

SAE competition rules state that each team must build a new car for each academic year, although it does allow teams to reuse the non-fabricated parts from the previous car—things like wheels, brake systems, and drive train parts. Stock 10 horsepower lawnmower engines are used in every car and no modifications to it are permitted under SAE rules. Most of the car, including the entire chassis and frame, is built by hand.

“There is a lot of ingenuity that goes into this, because everything is one-off. It’s not like we can go to some store and buy blueprints for a part. We make everything as we go,” said Williamson.

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Brandon Williamson (left) and lab supervisor Guy Telesnicki (right) prepare the computer-controlled lathe to fabricate a custom component.

ECU Motorsports’ shop is located in the Science and Technology Building. It is equipped with high-tech machining tools, including a three-dimensional mill, and computer-controlled lathe for fabricating custom parts. They also have more traditional tools for metalworking such as band saws, grinders, and drill presses. Using these tools, the team turns tubular chromoly and plate steel into components that are then combined to build the chassis of the car.

But before a car can ever be assembled, it must first be designed. To do that the team uses CAD software to create a complete virtual model of the car. The computer software removes any guesswork from the fabrication process. The team runs computer simulations to test for a myriad of potential problems, and then uses that data to design components with an optimal strength-to-weight ratio.

It is the difference between the club’s first car, which weighed nearly 700 pounds, and their current car, which is a svelte 490 pounds. One of the team’s goals this year is to shave another 90 lbs. off of the car’s weight, which they plan to do this summer by evaluating every part on the car and redesigning if necessary.

The hard work the men and women of ECU Motorsports put in at the shop designing, testing, and building the new car pays off when they finally get to drive it. Although they are still looking for a dedicated testing location near campus, they find places around eastern North Carolina where they can put the car through the paces. During testing, members take turns driving the car, but each spring when the team competes at the Baja SAE collegiate competition, the team’s official driver mans the wheel while the rest of the team serves as pit crew.

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The club uses CAD software to create a virtual model of each car before fabrication begins.

This past April, ECU Motorsports traveled to Opelika, Alabama for the 2009 Baja SAE Alabama competition to compete against 104 colleges and universities from around the globe. While the team hopes to improve on their overall result for the 2009–2010 competition, Williamson was very pleased with at least one result from this year’s race.

“We beat NC State,” he said.

Any students wishing to join ECU Motorsports must first arrange to take a shop safety course offered through the College of Technology and Computer Science. Advanced safety courses are required for welding, machine tools, and the advanced computer-controlled mill and lathe. Visit ECU Motorsports to learn more about ECU’s chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers and to view photos and watch videos from previous competitions.