By Al Esposito
In an out-of-the-way shed in Stony Brook University’s Research Park, a beast slumbers covered in mud. It is armed with a 10-horsepower Intek Model 20 engine and held together by chromoly 4130 grade steel tubing, a beast whose creators are the members of Stony Brook Motorsports.
Since 1987 Stony Brook Motorsports has been participating in the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) Baja competition, which serves as a recruiting platform for major engineering firms and automobile manufacturers like Honda and Polaris. Every year team members toil away in the basement of the Heavy Engineering building to design and construct an off-road recreational vehicle that can pass a battery of tests. They hope the vehicle will attain victory over 130 other teams competing in an SAE competition.
The team works weekends, nights and any time they can spare between classes not only to complete their vehicle but also to prepare analysis for every design and fabrication decision they make.
“Judges like to see analysis done. They like to see the numbers and the justification of why we did what we did,” said Mike Espinoza, the club’s president and a third-year Mechanical Engineering major.
Espinoza, who tinkered with K’NEX as a child, came across Motorsports during a campus club fair as a freshman and was hooked immediately.
Despite the recreational nature of the vehicle, the team takes careful consideration to check every bolt and every weld. George Barbieri, a sophomore and a self-proclaimed perfectionist, is this year’s driver and fabrication manager. He approves every part that goes on the vehicle. “Since I’m driving this year, I’m gonna make sure every bolt and weld is checked,” Barbieri said.
Barbieri, from Medford, has been a diesel mechanic since he was 12 years old and has extensive experience with fabrication. He plays the role of big brother in the shop, checking everyone for safety gear and giving advice on every cut presented to him, even if it isn’t going on the vehicle.
The team tests its vehicle at Stony Brook University’s recently acquired Research Park. The testing facility, dubbed “the track” by the team, contains a dirt trail for speed tests, jumps and moguls – small hills in succession.
The team runs extensive tests on vehicles built in previous years in order to find out what works or not.
On a cold Saturday night in a desolate shed next to the testing track, Vivek Zilpelware, a senior in charge of the vehicle’s power train, attaches a wireless strain gauge to the rear axel of last year’s Baja vehicle. Hari Mubarez, a junior and team rookie, mans the laptop collecting the data. The gauge measures the changing voltage on the rear axel, which translates the changing stress on the axel. “It’s not like we are a bunch of backyard mechanics,” Zilpelware said. “We definitely apply engineering.”
Zilpelware credits Motorsports for augmenting his education with hands-on experience. “A lot of times when people join these clubs, they are already set to get out and start working,” Zilpelware said.
“I have this whole book of equations, and it’s great to understand it,” Noah “Crash” Machtay said. He went on to explain how applying that knowledge is equally important for the students’ education and future. Machtay is one of the faculty advisors for the team who competed for Cooper Union’s Baja team when he was an undergraduate. He earned his name “Crash” for flipping a few vehicles.
This year the team hopes to shave 25 pounds off the car’s overall weight and design an automatic traction control system which is sure to turn heads at the competition this July in Milwaukee, Wis.
The automatic traction control system is the new addition to the vehicle this year. It will redistribute power to wheels that have traction to make the vehicle more efficient. “We’re allowing the computer to make the decision, so if a wheel is slipping it will lock the break on that wheel,” said Blenn Musano, a second year Mechanical Engineering student. The automatic traction control system is being designed, fabricated and programmed entirely by the team.
Last year, the team took second place overall in Montreal, ranking the highest of any team from the United States. The team also took first place in the design category in the Illinois competition.
Innovation is important to the team. Last year, senior John Bagion built a Thermal Forming Table as part of his senior design project. The table is a giant wooden contraption used to form plastic molds, with a heating element on top. A plastic sheet is raised to the heating element, and the molds are placed underneath. After the sheets reach the right temperature, it is lowered on top of the molds and sucked down by four shop vacuums. This allows the team to make a lightweight body for the vehicle in 30 minutes, a process that used to take three days using fiberglass.
Aside from design and fabrication, the team must also get sponsors to help fund their mission. They offer potential sponsors four sponsorship packages, in which sponsors, depending on their contribution, can receive anything from a certificate or mention on the team’s website, to their name prominently displayed on the vehicle.
In addition to monetary donations, some sponsors work directly with the team. Henry Honigman, an instructor who teaches machining, trains and certifies team members to work on specific equipment. Honigman has been working in the Stony Brook machine shop for 42 years and offers quick seminars in simple machining so members can get to work as quickly as possible. Another sponsor, Jean Christian Brutus, is a former president of the team and now a graduate student at Stony Brook University.
Brutus’s younger brother, Clifford, is currently the team’s car manager, in charge of the vehicles from past competitions for testing purposes. The Brutus brothers got their start building go-carts in their hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Its members use Stony Brook Motorsports as a platform to find employment. Two years ago, Honda recruited John Delgrande straight from a competition. In that same year, when the team took third place at the competition in Rapid City, S.D., the judges took resumes from all the Stony Brook students.
“One of the great things about this program is the job placement rate,” Machtay said. The team hopes this year to gain the attention of judges and potential employers this year in the face of stiff competition from all over North America.