Formula SAE teaches college students engineering skills through motorsports

Global Formula Racing

The world’s next Formula One or IndyCar champion isn’t going to be found honing their racing skills in college anytime soon. 

Unlike other sports, the road to becoming a professional race car driver doesn’t involve being recruited to drive for a collegiate team.

But for those pursuing a career in motorsports engineering, the road to designing and building the racing machines of tomorrow may begin in their university’s Formula SAE program.

Formula SAE is a design competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers where students use their knowledge and experience to design and build formula-style race cars.

Since the inaugural competition in 1979, Formula SAE has blossomed into an international affair, with over 600 teams representing over 20 countries.

During competitions, points are earned in a series of off-track “static” events, such as preparing a detailed report and business presentation, and on-track “dynamic” events, such as efficiency, endurance and acceleration tests. The team with the most points at the end of the competition is declared the winner.

One of the most successful teams in Formula SAE is Global Formula Racing, an international collaboration between Oregon State University’s Beaver Racing Team and the BA Racing Team of German state university Baden-Württemberg-Ravensburg (DHBW).

The collaboration began in 2009, with both institutions sharing physical and intellectual resources to create racing vehicles. 

Design, manufacturing and testing occurs simultaneously at both schools, with the team competing in events in both the United States and Europe

“After the first year of that partnership, what we’ve decided to do is to build an electric car over in Europe and a combustion-based car here at OSU,” team captain Nathan Rust said. “We compete with the American car at one American competition and then we ship the car over to Germany and we spend some time with them and then we both compete at multiple competitions in Europe.

“Last year was kind of a big year for us. We introduced our first ever autonomous vehicle, so we actually went to one of our competitions with three competing cars. We’ve chosen to retire our combustion car and now we’re just going to be building electric and driverless vehicles from here on out.”

The unique partnership between both institutions was the first of its kind in Formula SAE and has helped them establish themselves as one of the most victorious teams in the world. 

Since their inaugural season in 2010, GFR has placed first in 16 competitions and received three No. 1 world rankings in 2010, 2014 and 2015.

“As far as our track record, GFR is super successful,” Rust said. “I’d like to think we’re the best formula team in the United States, and we’re probably in the top 3-5 in the world right now.”

According to Rust, OSU’s team has approximately 100 active participants, including both enrolled students who are required to complete it for their senior capstone project, as well as students studying other majors who also want to participate. 

Many of the car’s parts are designed and constructed solely by the students themselves, though many of the more intricate parts are constructed with the assistance of 3D printing, thanks in part to the generosity of a local HP plant in the team’s U.S. hometown of Corvallis.

“We aren’t able to do any of this without our sponsors,” Rust said. “We have places that will anodize parts for us or places that can do machine stuff for us. We are not really anything without the help of our sponsors and the help of the university and their support. Our car is only getting more expensive as we get more advanced so it’s super helpful to get more people and companies on board.”

While constructing a car can be a long, tedious and expensive process, Rust said that both he and his fellow students agree that the finished project is always worth the months of work required to build a Formula SAE car.

Rust also said that he’s confident the skills that he’s acquired by participating in the team will help him land a future career in the motorsports or aerospace industries. 

“I value this higher than any internship I could have done, any job I could have done over the past two years.” Rust said. “The experience I’ve gained from this is going to be able to actually get me the job that I want, not the job that I’ll settle for.

“The amount of work and the fundamentals of engineering that you get and just the super in-depth experiences that you gain from these programs makes people better engineers. I’m very confident in my ability to get a job now purely based off of the stuff I have here.

“I think it’s much more attractive on a resume than the stuff that I have from my internships or from the classes that I’ve taken or even the work experience that I had after I graduated with my Bachelor’s (degree). I think this is what’s going to get me the job that I want.”

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