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The Baja, Formerly Known as Mini
BY NATE BENES

Every Tuesday and Thursday, in a repurposed woodshop in Scott Engineering Center, a handful of students labor away building a contraption that looks like something between a go-kart and a dune buggy. Students from all disciplines are welcome to participate in the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Baja competition, called SAE Baja.

The competition, which began in 1976 with 10 teams and 90 students, has since grown to over 120 teams and 1,120 student participants in 2009. The competition provides an opportunity for students to be exposed to the planning, designing, and fabrication required to create a new product as teams compete against each other to have their designs accepted by a fictitious firm. SAE Baja hosts three U.S. competitions a year and several abroad.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln team usually participates in two of them. Each meet focuses on a different theme: the East meet concentrates on water-based events, the Midwest meets on power, and the West meet on agility.

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ABOVE: Students from the UNL Baja team weld parts of the vehicle together.
Photo Courtesy: UNL Baja Team

“The events push the cars up to – and sometimes past – their breaking point,” said Josh Keithly, a senior mechanical engineering major and UNL’s Baja president, as he showed a twisted piece of metal that once belonged to the car’s drive train.

At these intense events, it is not uncommon for crews to work through the night to replace failed components and squeeze the last bits of performance out of their machines. Above all, the competition is a learning experience for students. Whether it is the proper technique for installing a clutch, optimizing the shape of the car’s continuously variable transmission (CVT), or performing a finite element analysis of critical life safety components on the car, students are constantly provided with new opportunities.

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ABOVE: The UNL Baja Team.
Photo Courtesy: UNL Baja Team

This past summer, the UNL Baja team traveled to two competitions. The first was in Oregon, where they took 39th place out of 99 teams with an overall score of 447 points. The second competition was in Wisconsin; the team took 63rd place out of 124 teams while improving their score to 492 points.

The students of the Baja team, however, aren’t satisfied with staying in one place long. Baja Vice President Corey Kruse, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, showed what just may be the next big thing for UNL Baja.

While the teams aren’t allowed to modify their SAE-issued 10hp Briggs and Stratton engines in any way, there are very few restrictions on the drive train. Given these constraints, the challenge becomes who can get power to the wheels most efficiently. Previously the team has stuck with a standard forward-neutral-reverse (FNR) transmission coupled with a CVT to eliminate the hassle of shifting and driving at the same time.

This year, they have begun research into a hydrostatic prototype. Common in agriculture and construction equipment, hydrostatic drives couple the motor to a hydraulic pump that distributes pressurized hydraulic fluid to motors at each of the wheels, allowing for what they believe will be a much more efficient system. The end result of the setup is an inherently simpler system with fewer moving parts. This will help improve reliability and lessen the time required to troubleshoot any problems that may arise.

If you are interested in helping the SAE Baja team represent UNL as they build a faster, more efficient vehicle, stop by SEC 116 on Tuesday or Thursday afternoons at 5:30 p.m.