Research Magazine 2006

Road scholars

Racecar team develops winning formula

UT Arlington's Formula racecar team has won an SAE-record eight first places, four second places and four thirds in U.S. competitions.

Mention university research and it sparks images of students and professors in lab coats mixing chemicals or splitting molecules. But perhaps few people imagine racecars.

One of those few is mechanical engineering Professor Bob Woods, director of the UT Arlington Society of Automotive Engineers’ Formula SAE team. The research began in 1978 when students asked to participate in the annual SAE competition. They needed an adviser, and Woods seemed the right person for the job.

He never imagined that the experience would jump-start a new research focus.

UT Arlington now boasts an internationally celebrated team with an SAE-record eight first-place wins, four second places and four thirds in U.S. competitions, plus victories in England, Australia and Japan. Dr. Woods realized how famous the team was when a Japanese professor visited the campus recently.

“You are a god in Japan,” the professor told Woods. “Everyone is very fearful of your car.”

During UT Arlington’s first competition in 1978 in Phoenix, a broken chain stopped the car during a four-hour endurance race. The driver told Woods he did not have a link to fix it. Another team overheard the problem and volunteered to hand over its last link.

“I saw then that it wasn’t a competition of team versus team, it was car against the track, and the camaraderie among the teams really hooked me,” Woods said.

As the program progressed, Woods realized that it was great training for students—training unavailable in the classroom, the kind necessary for success in the real world.

Each year the process starts with a new car design, rendered on computer in 3D. In late summer, stress and aerodynamic analyses determine which components to use.

Hours are spent exploring innovative developments concerning wheels, transmission shifters, suspensions and drivetrains. By early fall, research focuses more on actually drawing and analyzing a design, with assembly in late fall or early spring. The final stage features hands-on test driving.

Team members search salvage yards for the car’s engine, which often comes from a Honda F4i motorcycle. Retooled, it delivers 75-80 horsepower, but that’s not the only factor influencing speed. The car’s weight of 700 pounds, driver included, along with the motorcycle engine and aerodynamic design, provide the right components to win races.

The project involves about 5,000 work hours, worth nearly $250,000 in the automotive industry, Woods said.

At least 15 students a year come to the College of Engineering because of the Formula SAE team, Woods estimates. Most go on to an engineering career, but few enter auto racing. He says success in that industry requires involvement from early childhood, and most team members’ first experience with racecars happens at UT Arlington.  

Woods attributes the program’s strength to the students’ maturity, excellent support at all levels of the University, continuous in-house driver training and keeping each vehicle for further research, which most universities don’t do.

The all-volunteer team includes 15-20 undergraduate and graduate students, but it trains only six to eight drivers a year. One of the best drivers, alumnus Erick Kohler, began with the team in 1998 and served as chief engineer for two years and chief driver from 2000-2005. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 2003 and continued in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department and on the team as a graduate student.

As a 10-year-old, young Erick watched his idols practice in the campus parking lots. His mother worked as an administrative assistant in the College of Engineering.

“It takes a self-motivated person to be on the team,” he said. “I started by helping others. I said, ‘Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’ As I gained responsibilities with the team, I gained the privilege of being a driver. Responsibilities as a driver go above and beyond the commitment as a team member.”

Kohler’s senior research project, a finite element analysis of the drivetrain, resulted in the lightest driveline package to date. He developed designs for the chassis, suspension and overall assembly in an attempt to integrate all the systems, which resulted in a lighter vehicle. Another advance in technology tied the aerodynamics directly into the car’s suspension.

“By putting the aerodynamic forces through the suspensions and tires, the chassis springs won’t compress with an increasing aerodynamics load,” he explained.   

Kohler’s graduate research involves mathematical modeling of a shock absorber to determine superior damping characteristics. His initial results differ from traditional ideas.

He has conducted all of his research through computer modeling. The final step involves verifying his findings on production vehicles and Formula racecars. Recently he took a break from his studies to be a test driver for Bridgestone/Firestone near Midland, Texas.

“If you use the team to its fullest, taking on projects works like any project in industry,” he said.

“When you begin to see how the pieces fit together as a whole, you can see what to do on your own. This is something that you can apply anywhere in your life.”

— Kim Pewitt-Jones