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Drive it to break it

Photo provided by Dalton Colen.

Photo provided by Dalton Colen.

Recent mechanical engineering graduate Andy Benn isn’t used to having time on his hands. Spending an afternoon playing tennis and eating lobster rolls, is well, unprecedented for the former Baja team captain who said he was clocking 80 to 100 hours a week in the auto shop in the basement of Richards Hall before graduating earlier this month.

In case you haven’t heard of it before (and I hadn’t), Baja is an international competition sponsored by the Society for Automotive Engineering in which undergraduate engineers design, build, and race an off-road vehicle three times a year. The son of an amateur car racer, Benn said that when he applied to colleges back in 2007, he only considered schools that had a team.

Benn told me that Northeastern’s team is nearly 20 years old and boasts a long history of success. But their most recent competition marked its best finish ever. They placed third overall and second in the endurance portion of the race. The team was also one of six teams (out of 82) to progress to the “design finals” in Tennessee a week and a half ago.

While I don’t claim to be an auto junkie by any stretch of the imagination, I do know how to drive stick, which I’m extremely proud of. So you can imagine my embarrassment when I forgot what a transmission was and had to ask Benn and his former teammates during our interview last week. You see, Benn designed and built one this past spring. For fun. In between designing and building a new suspension for his Capstone project….in between, you know, classes…and co-op.

Benn seemed to have a hard time not looking at me like I was an alien when I asked about the transmission. All of this just comes so naturally to him. It’s as if off-roading is just an extended version of walking for him. Incoming team captain Matt Nussbaum, on the other hand, first heard of the Baja race during a freshman activities fair in 2009. For Nussbaum, Baja originally presented a unique way to satisfy his love of hands-on work, machining, and tooling. He liked the idea that he would have to eventually make the parts that he designed on the computer–not always the case when it comes to classroom design experiences. He joined for the valuable engineering skills Baja provided, but he hasn’t left because he too has become obsessed, just like Benn.

After Nussbaum joins the ranks of alumni advisors like Benn and hundreds of other team members from the Baja days of yore, third-year student Dalton Colen will take over as team captain. Benn has already begun grooming him. As a kid, Colen and his dad built a “project car,” an experience that, in some respects, sealed his fate as an engineer. That was fun he said, but Baja is better. Here he gets to make decisions, engineer solutions to real concrete challenges.

And what are some of those challenges? Baja cars have to endure a series of hard-core assaults during the three day competitions, including a four hour endurance race and a brake-neck hill climb. To be successful, the cars need to be lightweight and durable, they need to be able to handle the bumps and surprises of an off-road course. They also need to use cost effective designs and be based on sound engineering decisions.

And what better way to ensure that your car will succeed in the official race than to do everything you can to make it fail beforehand? This is the strategy Benn has taken with Northeastern’s car over the past couple of years. After showing up to a race the day after assembling their car for the first time the team decided to get everything done as far in advance as possible and spend a month “driving it to break it,” as Benn said. In this way they manage to identify the weak links and design solutions to mitigate them next time. This year’s car clocked thirty hours of driving time before it ever hit an official course, a stat that  dropped the judge’s jaws in Tennessee.

It paid off though, of those 82 cars I mentioned before, Northeastern’s was one of two that never broke down during the entire race. Benn says the secret to this success isn’t great engineering ideas, although those are of course important. Rather it’s good project management. “Being able to conceptualize what you can get done, the feasibility of it,” is critical, said Benn. No matter how great an idea you’ve got, if you don’t have the time or resources to see it to fruition, it will only hold you back, he explained.

The next race is this weekend in Rochester, NY. Stay tuned for the results on that one. We’ll be cheering for you here in Boston, Baja!


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