Cal Poly Pomona Engineering Students Up to the SAE Baja Challenge

The static events test the students on their presentation and oral skills, explaining to a panel of judges from around the automotive and engineering world why their design is the best.

People tell me all the time, that the best way for University students to learn is through hands-on experience. Engineering is a field to which this philosophy is particularly relevant, and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is a big name association which helps in that area. SAE puts on yearly events where student groups from universities around the world build cars for either the Formula or Baja competitions.

On first thought, one may think that Universities with a lot of money to put into student organizations and high quality machine shops would have an advantage. In some regard, this is in fact the case. However, an improved team dynamic and a passion to learn have put an underdog Cal Poly Pomona in the top 11 the last six years, and a first place overall in 2008.

The Cal Poly Pomona Baja team inhabits limited space on campus, sharing a shop with the Formula team and all other senior design projects. In addition, they operate on only $1500 a year from their student government, $1000 of which is used for competition registration alone.  With little money and space, the team has relied heavily on sponsorships and a positive attitude to work their way up the ranks over the past 20 years. Former steering designer and current president Quinton Quintana quoted a prominent SAE alumnus when describing their new attitude by saying “the ‘A’ team comes first, then the ‘A’ car”.

Consisting of fifty to sixty students, the team quickly gets whittled down to about 6-9 core contributors to the project over the year. Registration happens in the fall and teams have the option to choose which competitions they want to appear in (Cal Poly Pomona usually participates in all three). Following the provided rulebook, and using only the unmodified 10hp motor provided, the teams go back to the drawing board and redesign their car. Although some of the larger components of the car may carryover, each year is a different design.

The competition covers both static and dynamic events. The static events test the students on their presentation and oral skills, explaining to a panel of judges from around the automotive and engineering world why their design is the best. Static events make up a large part of team’s overall scores, since it is a big aspect of engineering and commonly overlooked by students. Dynamic events are where the excitement happens, and it is when the teams push their cars to its limits in a combination of tests including rock crawls, hill climbs, maneuverability, and acceleration. When questioned about the toughness of the tests, Quinton said that he had shown up to events where the designer told them “there is no way you guys are going to make it through this”. As if that wasn’t enough, the competition ends with a 4 hour endurance race around a dirt track.

So why do they put in all the time and effort? Since there is no monetary award, the motivation comes from an aspiration to build something and see it work, have something on their resume, and make their school proud. John, the current transmission specialist, explained he is motivated because “there so much that I don’t learn in class, like vehicle dynamics, which isn’t covered in any general engineering courses”. For some, it is their first time working on something as big and complicated as the Baja cars, and Quinton described the reward for seeing it all come together “an unimaginable feeling” and that “it was hard to believe you could be so happy about something school related”. We can all relate to this feeling of accomplishment, but maybe not while being covered in dirt.

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Adam Beck

Director of Marketing at CADENAS PARTsolutions | A Marketing graduate from the Miami University, Farmer School of Business in Oxford Ohio, Adam has years of experience in marketing and design for a variety of industries.