Shocker Baja team returns from race with damaged vehicle

Members of the Wichita State Baja Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) team finished their first race of the season last weekend in destructive fashion.

The gear casing on the team’s off-roading vehicle fell to pieces — twice — while competing in Auburn, Alabama, last weekend among 100 collegiate teams.

“It was more of just an impact,” drivetrain lead Ian Keefe said. “I was full throttle, and I hit some big concrete steps — like platforms — really hard.”

Baja SAE is the off-road division of Shocker Racing, and its members are part of the Society of Automotive Engineers. “Baja” is a reference to the professional Baja 1000 off-road race that takes place in Mexico each November.

To compete each year, the group must either make a new car or change at least 30 percent of a car that has been used in the past. This year’s car is brand new.

Mechanic Suveen Emmanuel said the team began work on the car in July.

“We wanted to get a head start,” Emmanuel said. “Last year, we were a little short on manpower, and we started a little late … So, I guess we got a good start.”

The car has a 10 horsepower engine with 14 foot-pounds of torque. Except for the frame, the Baja team built the entire car in-house in a shop they share with the WSU Formula SAE team.

Emmanuel machined the output shaft for the car, which connects the gear case of the transmission to the axle of a wheel. It took him about 14 hours to make, he said.

“You can’t screw up,” Emmanuel said. “It has to be precise when you make it. If you cut too much, it’ll be too loose. It’s better to cut less than to cut more.”

After finishing the car, the team headed to Auburn. The events were split over four days. Before any actual racing began, teams were required to present their car to a fictitious firm with design, cost and sales presentations.

Later, the car must pass a technical inspection before competing in the races, which include acceleration, hill climb, maneuverability, suspension and endurance races.

“We made a lot of good changes that we wanted to,” Keefe said. “We kept the car under 400 pounds this year, which is kind of a big step for Shocker Racing. You just have to remember that the lighter, the faster. It’s about 20 pounds lighter than [the car] last year, I think.”

The Shocker team passed the presentations and technical inspections with flying colors, but something went wrong in one of the first day’s races.

“The suspension course was definitely tough,” team captain Landon Huslig said. “They build those courses to try to break your car.”

And it did break. Keefe was driving the suspension course on Saturday when it happened.

“I thought I busted the rear suspension, honestly,” Keefe said. “And the volunteer said, ‘Your gear case is spewing oil, and your wheels aren’t turning.’

“And I said, ‘Oh no.’ So right then is when the teeth must’ve fallen off of one little gear.”

While the volunteers were towing Keefe and the car off the course, the gear case broke.

“There was a big ‘pop’ — sounded like a gunshot in the gear case,” Keefe said, “and that might’ve been when our bigger gear broke from the center. [It] shattered into pieces.”

The team had to regroup, though, for the next day’s endurance race. The team’s mechanics replaced the shattered gear case with one from last year’s car.

“So we spent ‘til the wee hours of the morning — Saturday night, Sunday morning — modifying our car to be able to use the old gear case,” Huslig said.

Although the car made it about a lap into the race on the final day of competition, it didn’t make it very far. The modified gear case broke down, too, and the car came to a stop.

“So, basically I drove a lap with one axle,” Huslig said. “One wheel drive, basically.”

Although the team didn’t get to finish the suspension and endurance races, just being able to compete in those events was good for their score. For the overall weekend, the team placed 66th.

The team’s next competition will be May 7 through 10 in Baltimore. Until then, Emmanuel said the team has a few things to improve on, including acceleration.

“I’d say we need a much better gear case,” Emmanuel said. “A gear, that’s the primary concern, it cracked.”