A car guy and fairly accomplished drag racer from a small Oklahoma town, Woods discovered mechanical engineering and eventually earned a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. In 1977, after his third year at UTA, a student group approached him about advising its racing team.
It was fine with him as long as he didn’t have to do meetings or babysit anyone or even attend competitions. “I really didn’t help them a whole lot,” he confesses. “But the racing part of it did seem fun and exciting.” After his aha moment at the Mini Baja race in Phoenix, Woods rolled up his sleeves and went to work. In 1983 UTA captured its first win in Formula SAE and went on to dominate the competition. The team has won more titles than any other school, and that includes universities from Canada, Germany, South Korea, and Austria.
A WELL-OILED PROCESS
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department Chairman Erian Armanios loves to talk victories but is more impressed by team members’ 100 percent post-graduation hire rate.
“You can sit in a lecture all day long, but the real learning is when you do something yourself in some practical, theoretical way,” Dr. Armanios says. “Dr. Woods is able to attract these students to something that is, frankly, quite time-consuming and challenging. It’s not easy, but they make it look easy.”
Success is a matter of approach. Many schools see Formula SAE competition as senior design projects. At UTA it’s a lifestyle. Anyone willing to put in the time can join, including non-engineering majors.
“If you limit the experience to seniors, they cannot learn enough in one year to do very much,” Woods says. “There’s so much to learn about race car design and tuning that it takes several years to be able to understand the systems well enough to contribute in a significant way.”
That’s why UTA offers a well-oiled mentorship that passes crucial information about fabrication, design, driving, and administration from one team to the next, helping newbies grow into the work. And instead of limiting progress to fall and spring semesters, UTA never stops. Summers at Woolf Hall are just as busy as any other time.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
The first day electrical engineering junior Naima Rivas asked about the group, she found herself working on a hybrid car just days before a competition.
First: Michael Hibbard solders on a circuit board in the team’s electronics lab. Second: David Campbell, left, and Ravi Soni inspect a carbon wheel in the composite fabrication lab.
“It’s close to midnight, the car is jacked up on stands, and I’m upside down soldering this board onto the car. All I’m thinking is, ‘This is nuts.’ Safe to say, after that I was hooked.”
Now Rivas heads the team responsible for wiring the vehicles and doubles as project manager for the electric car. The racing team is run like a corporation, with a president, a team captain, a chief engineer, etc.
“They learn to work as a team and on a schedule, work on a budget, make compromises, deal with personalities,” Woods says. “It’s great to know theory from textbooks, but in reality they have to work on a team when they get in the industry and rely on one another. That’s what we teach them.”
Woods says that once engineering students graduate, it typically takes a year for companies to shape them into engineers. But a student involved with Formula SAE “graduates as an engineer.”
Alumnus Erick Kohler, who analyzes gearbox cases, gears, bearings, and driveshafts for Bell Helicopter, says he had an advantage over other graduates when he left the team in 2007.
“Dr. Woods was right that it takes about a year for engineering students to gain the amount of experience and engineering sophistication we had on day one.”
Distinguished Alumnus David Hunn also hit the ground running after receiving a Ph.D. in 1992. He was on two Mini Baja and Formula SAE teams. Now chief engineer and technical director for the Ground Vehicle product line at Lockheed Martin, he says the experience teaches engineering, sure, “but more importantly, it taught us leadership, built our self-confidence, and tempered us with humility, which I’m convinced are the foundations of a successful professional career.”
Ask Woods about his gushing alumni and he smiles, saying how his “trick” works every time.
“I get them all interested in race cars and then teach them a whole bunch of engineering and professionalism,” he says. “If I said, ‘Let’s design a chair,’ how many would stick around and stay all night? But they would learn the same things.”