The University of Michigan Baja Racing team finished the 2015 season as the North American champions. Out of a series of three regional competitions, their souped-up off-road vehicle claimed first, second and first.
At the last competition of the season, they finished in the top ten of each event—a team record. This was the team’s twenty-sixth consecutive year competing, and “from our records, this has been the team’s most successful year ever,” says Jason Willig, team captain and mechanical engineering student.
“My favorite moment of the year was winning the endurance race in Oregon (the last competition of the year) with the fastest lap,” says Willig. “Winning it was a major goal we had set for ourselves coming into the season. Also, at that point we knew that we had secured the Mike Schmidt Memorial Iron Team Award given to the team that earns the most points in the three North American Competitions—essentially the National Championship of Baja.”
Team member and mechanical engineering student Lizzy Miranda attributes this season’s accomplishments to a combination of innovation and team dynamics.
“Culture, learning, and drive (no pun intended) were central to our success,” Miranda says.. “We had an inclusive team culture. Everyone was interested in learning new things and applying them to improve our vehicle. The whole team was willing to push the boundaries of what we knew to implement the cutting-edge designs that led to our success.”
A pride point of that design is the car’s custom built continuously variable transmission. Whereas most of their competitors buy and use snowmobile transmissions, the U-M team is one of the few that designs and builds their own. Theirs has helped them earn the reputation of one of the fastest cars in competition. Another important aspect of this car’s design has roots in U-M Baja history.
“One of our biggest innovations this year was sort of a throwback to our cars from a decade ago,” says Brandon Amat, driver and mechanical engineering student. “We chose to use the drive shaft as a suspension link in this year’s design. It increased durability, and raised our ground clearance, which allowed us to get over obstacles more easily. It puts loads through the drive shaft and into your gearbox, which isn’t a situation that most teams would think of as being good. But if you design it right, it can work. We had seen it done on our older cars, and we were able to collect all the data and make sure it was going to work with our design. No other car in competition had that suspension set up.”
Team members learn more than just how to design and build. “Baja has given me opportunities I couldn’t even fathom before coming to U-M and has broadened me as a person,” says Willig. ”I’ve had the opportunity to travel across the United States and meet students like me from around the world. It also allows me to network with and learn from industry leading companies.”
The University of Michigan Baja Racing team finished the 2015 season as the North American champions. Out of a series of three regional competitions, they claimed first, second and first.
The U-M Baja team is an entirely student-run effort. Every year they design and manufacture an entirely new vehicle from the ground up.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when six months of hair-pulling hard work comes to life in front of you,” says Miranda. “There’s the joy that the car actually drives; the relief that nothing fell apart in the first few minutes of driving; the temporary sadness that your new job is to push the car to its limits during the coming weeks; and the peace that comes with realizing that regardless of how well you compete in the months to come, our imperfect team of college kids somehow managed to build a working race car.”
The team has already started developing next year’s vehicle. And with only losing two graduated seniors, they can look forward to a large knowledge bank to pull from.