Students design and build Baja buggy for national competition

Even in high school, Evan Diener was interested in building a Baja buggy.

“I had seen this program at other colleges, and it was something I was really interested in,” he said. “I had heard that ECU had done it in the past, but that was about the extent of it.”

Dr. Tarek Abdel-Salam, engineering professor and director of ECU’s Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering (CSE3), even has an email from Diener — before he ever enrolled — asking how he could get involved in the project.

There had been a Baja team at ECU that competed in a collegiate design series sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Foundation for three years, but it had been inactive for eight. That didn’t stop Diener.

“I got involved with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers my freshman year and participated in three years’ worth of smaller student design competitions,” he said. “We did a human-powered vehicle competition two years in a row, and then Andrew (Grena) and I both participated in a Mars rover competition.”

That rover team took third place out of 120 teams last year in a global competition sponsored by NASA.

Diener, a mechanical engineering student, continued to remind Salam that he wanted to bring the Baja program back, but finding funding and space was a challenge. Eventually, a combination of funding from CSE3, the Department of Engineering and the Student Government Association allowed the project to move forward — but it was on a shoestring budget compared to the programs it was competing against.

For the Baja SAE competition, each team uses the same Briggs & Stratton engine (think lawn mower or go-cart) limited to the same speed and designs a buggy around it. If the buggy passes inspection — no easy feat, it turns out — the team can participate in a set of four dynamic events and an endurance race.

During the fall 2018 semester, the team set to designing a buggy in a small caged area in the high bay of the Science and Technology Building. More than 20 students helped along the way, including the dedicated core group that kept things moving forward.

“A lot of schools have had these programs going for years and years, and they have a foundation,” Diener said. “They have a frame built, something to build on. The amount of work that went into this this year, starting from scratch, not having any data from previous years, doing all of our design and fabrication up front, was immense. We had late nights, lots of late nights, leaving here at 1 o’clock in the morning sometimes.”

It wasn’t until January that the first frame member was bent, marking the beginning of the actual build, just three months before the competition. There were times when the team looked at the amount of work ahead of them and wondered how they would finish, but Diener said there was never a doubt in his mind that they would.

“The question,” he said, “was how much sleep am I going to lose before we get there?”

But get there they did, and in April, five team members, along with Salam, arrived in Tennessee with a buggy in a 6-by-12 trailer, the smallest by far of the rigs in the parking lot. Other teams had semi-truck trailers emblazoned with their logos and filled with equipment.

“Their mobile shops were as equipped if not more than the extent of our resources here on campus,” Diener said.

Undaunted and equipped with mostly hand tools and a welder, the team got registered and began the inspection process. They didn’t run into issues with the engine testing, but they had to make several alterations to pass the technical inspection. Each team was allowed three attempts to pass.

“After going through our first tech inspection, we shifted into high gear because we knew we had some things to do really quickly, and it was pretty cool seeing everybody’s energy level go up,” Diener said. “We all knew that we had to get things done, and fast, if we were going to get through tech inspection in the allotted time.”

There were significant issues, like fabricating a new splash shield to ensure fuel couldn’t spill onto the engine, and technical details, like registration numbers that were required to stand out in relief from the mounting surface.

“So we were out there welding in the parking lot, fixing things,” Diener said.

After the second attempt to pass inspection, the mounting points for the seatbelt shoulder straps had to be moved about an inch closer together. An hour later, on the third attempt, they passed.

“That was monumental for us,” Diener said. “At that point it was a success, and anything else was icing on the cake.”

The final inspection was for the brakes. “You have to be able to lock up all four tires when you slam on the brakes,” said team member Christopher Helberg. “Here (on campus) we were able to do it twice the day before. But when we got to the competition our brakes decided not to lock up.”

The ECU Baja team traveled to Cookeville, Tennessee, to participate in a national competition featuring 100 collegiate teams. Pictured from left are Christian Dowell, Andrew Grena, Landon Sugar, Evan Diener, Christopher Helberg and Dr. Tarek Abdel-Salam.

Some adjustments and modifications solved that issue, and “after that it was game on,” Diener said.

The dynamic events included a sled pull, acceleration, suspension and traction, and maneuverability. And then there was the endurance race.

“Our objective in this build, this year, was durability and reliability,” Diener said. “We wanted to pass tech and we wanted to be able to compete in the endurance race. And we wanted to be successful in the endurance race and be able to finish it. A lot of teams were getting dragged off the course within the first lap with a separated tie rod or a separated control arm joint, and the whole wheel was just dragging behind.”

The black-and-purple buggy was designed with a robust suspension; Diener — who got to drive because he was the only team member who managed to unstrap himself and get out of the car in under 5 seconds as required by rule — said he never lifted his foot off the gas on the endurance course.

“We just pounded over everything, and the suspension just ate it,” he said.

The course was brutal, with giant holes, trenches and other obstacles. “The objective is to take you out of the race,” Diener said. “It was a torture test, and we learned a lot doing it.”

The team didn’t finish the race, which was condensed from four hours to two and a half due to a forecast of inclement weather, but the buggy lasted for more than 45 minutes before dropping out with drivetrain issues. The transmission belt started slipping, and the design didn’t include a way to adjust the tension.

“On the bright side, we didn’t have any mechanical failures, any shearing or breakages,” Diener said. “Where other teams were getting dragged off the track, we were just rolling past them. So that was rewarding.”

Diener graduated last week, so next year’s effort will be spearheaded by Grena, who said he’s looking forward to building on this year’s accomplishments.

“We’ll up the ante just a little bit,” Grena said. “We’re not going to rebuild the entire chassis; we’re going to refine the parts that showed fatigue or didn’t perform the way we wanted them to, and get that nailed down to a machine that’s going to perform even better in the endurance race. We’ll probably do some changes to the steering so we can turn a little bit better.”

Salam said he also hopes this year’s effort will help generate more support.

“I’m really excited because as a small team with limited resources … they proved to be real engineers,” he said. “Teamwork is part of what I teach here, and they did excellent work as a team.”

Follow the team’s efforts on Facebook at @ECUmotorsports.

Students from the Department of Engineering and other programs designed and built the buggy from scratch in less than two semesters. The team was funded in part by ECU’s Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering.