• Dec 4th 2009 at 11:57AM
  • 53
Cornell's SAE Baja Buggy – Click above for high-res image gallery

How much horsepower do you need to have fun in a car? More is usually better, but sometimes less is okay too. Sometimes even none is enough – if you have gravity on your side. When you're running off-road through mud, rocks, up hills, crashing off of whoops and flying over jumps, you certainly can't rely on the attraction of physical bodies to get you around the course. You need power. Cornell's Baja SAE buggy admittedly doesn't have much, driven by a lowly 10-hp Briggs & Stratton that wouldn't look out of place on a lawnmower. This most certainly is not a lawnmower.

Cornell's team of students past and present have built an impressive chariot to cradle that engine and a driver. CAD modeled, CNC hewn and carbon fiber-skinned, nearly everything on the kart is a one-off created by the sort of technology that drives Formula One. When an offer came in to come drive the thing, we jumped right in – right in to a mudbath as it turned out. Won't you join us?

The Facilities

In a cramped garage in the basement of an unassuming academic building, we met George Yorgakaros who handles the business side of things, as well as Scott Pendleton and Andrew Cypher, the two team leads on the project. We expected to look around there for a bit, check out some hardware, then hop in for a test drive. Instead, we got the full tour and quickly realized that the facilities available here would put some of next year's would-be F1 teams to shame. We were escorted down a subterranean hallway, past the office where another team of students designed and built a satellite (set to launch early next year), and up to a massive metal working shop with rows and rows of machinery – some computerized and some manual. Here is where the CNC-produced kart components materialize, bits like the transmission cases and wheel hubs.

Then it was on to a design room where students hunched over keyboards and squinted at dual monitors, crafting the components that would come to life in the machine and composites rooms later. A set of fenders were being designed to channel water around the wheels such that the kart could propel itself through an amphibian challenge without a propeller. Also being rendered was a positive-acting rear differential. The current diff is locked, meaning both wheels turn at the same speed. That's a common layout for vehicles like this, but it means the inside wheel is dragging through the turns, creating understeer. A limited-slip model allows the two wheels to turn independently until one wheel spins up too quickly, but a positive-acting diff actually distributes power such that the outside wheel gets more power.

Our heads spinning with the possibilities, we were whisked off to another computer lab where more components were being modeled, this time a gas pedal to be created in both carbon fiber and steel to see which offered the best balance of strength and lightness. A custom wheel hub was also undergoing some virtual stress testing, identifying what areas could be shaved off to save a few grams. Next, we went back down to smell the resin in the composites lab, where the team had laid out a carbon fiber transmission case and a suite of prototype driveshafts of varying thicknesses. They've already used them mostly successfully in competition last year – successful until damaged by a competitor. Bodywork and seats are also created here, machined out of foam and laid up in carbon weave. The seat was based on a 3D laser scan of the back of Connor Broaddus, one of the team's drivers and suspension gurus. Not even the greatest luxury cars custom-fit your backside.

Finally, we took a peek at the electronics office, where two-way telemetry systems were being configured to feed information to a custom LCD dash mounted above the Kevlar butterfly steering wheel (also made in-house). The team is working on a custom system to map out courses using GPS to help optimize tuning, possibly even combining that with dampers containing MR fluids, their viscosity able to be changed on the fly. This could mean custom damping for every turn, the only thing holding them back being the cost of the stuff – and time.

Time is a little hard to find when you're a student at one of the toughest colleges in America, a place said to have the highest suicide rate of all schools thanks to punishing academic demands. (A false rumor, as it turns out.) Each of the roughly 40 students on the team spend about 40 hours a week on the kart. This is in addition to that course load that's driven some to look thoughtfully at the campus' famous gorges. Additionally, for a month early in the year, when most other students are home decompressing and honing Modern Warfare II skills, the team gathers and logs 12-hour days crafting, assembling and testing. It's no wonder they've gone from rookies in 2003 to one of the top finishers on the engineering side of the competitions, where scores are awarded for the most elegant designs. It's in the "dynamic" competitions, the wheel-to-wheel races, where they've struggled. We hoped I could teach them a few things in that department.

The Drive

We headed off to the test facility a half-hour's drive away, a disused pasture that a generous farmer lets the students use. Other schools have dedicated tracks, but despite having a campus bigger than many small cities, Cornell couldn't find room for them. So, they regularly load up an open trailer, hitch it on to an aging Jeep Wagoneer, and rumble down the country roads. A walk around the mile-plus course carved out through the sloped field was honestly a little disconcerting, leaving me wondering what I was getting myself into. What started as puddles at the top quickly became murky ruts and, at the bottom, pools of water. Cold water. This may be the warmest November on record in these parts, but it's still November. In Upstate New York.

Alexander, Connor and Scott from the team led me around, saying to use the ruts to get around turns quickly – but not to use them too much lest the thing tip over. They also recommended hitting most of the jumps at full-power – but not all the jumps, as some dropped off quite suddenly. There was one bit of information that was more reassuringly consistent: floor it through the puddles. That I could remember.

After attaching a bevy of POV cameras (one GoPro HD Hero on the front and a pair of ContourHDs), I strapped in. This took a little help, the tight confines in the kart making it difficult to connect the four-point harness and wrist straps. The first few laps were behind a lead car to help me get up to speed safely, so away he went and I slotted in behind. A quick stab of the power resulted in a mild lurch. As the kart gained speed the torque tapered off and, well, I was reminded this is a very small-displacement four-stroke engine putting out 10 horsepower on a good day. I wasn't expecting much in terms of power and I didn't get it, but that's not to say I wasn't impressed.

Some of the hills that we could barely manage on foot the kart motored up easily, launching itself off the other side as if given a big kick in the back. No, I wasn't getting enough airtime to make Pastrana proud, but I got enough to open my eyes – and my throat. I was laughing and hooting so much over those first few laps I managed to blow out my voice, as you can probably tell in the latter parts of the videos.

The first major puddle snapped me out of my revelry. Imagine bouncing your car over rutted roads, focusing on trying to keep the thing from flipping, having a lot of fun, then having someone dump a bucket of ice-cold, muddy water on your lap. That was my situation, except instead of on my lap it was all over me. The general groin area was the most shocking bit, though. With no heat and most of my body exposed to the elements I pulled in after a few laps of rapidly numbing fingers.

The Challenge

Driving around behind one of the team members and getting soaked in mud was fun, but things tend to get a bit more entertaining when there's competition. We planned a race. The track was far too narrow to even think about passing, so a time trial it would be. Three laps from a standing start, two quick laps with only our pride on the line. The team, of course, had spent hours and hours pounding around this field, knowing every rutted turn and muddy straight. For me, it should have been no shame to lose, but I had a little something to prove: Cornell University had rejected me when I was an hopeful 18-year-old despite (what I considered to be) strong SAT scores and an unblemished academic record. This was a chance to show the school what it missed – in some small, petty way.

I was the away team, so I went first. The farmer who owned the property had gone out with his tractor, doing what he could to drain the bigger pools. Things were a bit drier, but where there were once puddles there was now mud, lacking of grip but minimizing the cold splash aspect. Again the buggy motored right through, locked rear diff providing plenty of grip but predictably causing understeer in these tight, slick turns. On a wider course, I'd have tried to do something fancy with weight transfer and maybe a little flick. Here I just put my right foot down and bounced off the ruts.

After the second timed lap, my fingers were again numb so I was glad to be through. The results? I'd managed a 3:24 on the first lap and a 3:23 on the second. I was consistent, if nothing else. Alexander Kopache jumped in the kart and went off for his three laps, motoring into the darkening afternoon and quickly getting up to speed. He whirred by for his two hot laps and then pulled in, somehow even muddier than I was, so much so that he'd run out of tear-offs and had to ditch his goggles.

His quickest? A 3:27, four seconds off my best time. I was the winner. Granted, I'd managed to keep my goggles clean, and since I'd not spent any late nights wrenching on the thing I had no qualms about keeping it floored over the roughest bits, but I won't let such doubts dampen my victory.

The Team

Take a quick look at the Cornell kart and you're inclined to think it's just a little toy, but spend a day like I did speaking with the members of the team, walking through the facilities, and you start to notice the details – the custom-machined hubs, the three-stage progressive suspension, the custom-molded seat – and then you realize what a feat the thing is. Sadly, despite the team's recent successes in competition, Cornell has decided to cut its funding by two-thirds for this year, and while the kart's most important assets (the students) come for free, they're now hurting for budget when it comes to raw materials and competition transportation. It seems there was an ulterior motive behind this test drive, but we'll play along: if you're the generous sort, they're looking for sponsors.

Me, I was just happy to get away without having broken anything, without having rolled the kart, and without embarrassing myself behind the wheel. I got filthier than I've been in years in the process, but it was all worth it. Surely right now, in an oak-paneled admissions office thick with Cohiba smoke, someone is saying: "See, I knew we should have let that kid in."

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      The whole point of the competition is design an off-road vehicle to compete, in various events. The most important event is the endurance race, it takes each and every design and puts it to their limits. If the design is poor or build quality is poor, then that team will not do well in the endurance race. Hence, you can put all the innovation you want onto a car, but the important thing is if it actually works. Therefore Cornell not finishing the endurance race, or having to change out one of their innovations for a more conventional device, means their design was poor. Blaming other teams for that failure is just an excuse for the poor design.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Isn't this the car that completely fell apart when it rolled because they don't know how to weld? hmm...
      • 5 Years Ago
      If you want to come to Flint MI I could probably arrange a drive in a Formula SAE car for you at Kettering University... granted we dont have the funds or manpower that even this baja team has, but we have fun and get by... our 06 car is the beater car with a honda 600cc 4 cyl in it and I would imagine that anyone from Autoblog or Jalopnik (the 2 most read sites in the shop) would be more than welcome
        • 5 Years Ago
        Cornell has historically done very well in FSAE.

        This Baja thing is new news to me.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Come by Seattle and we could likely arrange for a drive in the University of Washington Formula SAE car. We're using similar design tools to Cornell, and run a CBR600-F4i motor (roughly 0-60 in 4s), so it should be fun. Contact me if interested.
        • 5 Years Ago
        • 5 Years Ago
        Or come by Bethlehem Pa and ride in a Formula SAE from a real engineering school...LEHIGH!
      • 5 Years Ago
      Well, like you said, SB is attempting a few firsts this year. If there were a year that they were going to DNF, this might be it. The school's on austerity budget as well and funding is dependent on performance the year before so 'finish the endurance race' isn't a goal, its a functional requirement. It tends to motivate the underclassmen to know the program could collapse into a black hole should we fail miserably.

      And to be honest a car that does well in the endurance race is likely to do well in almost all other events if driven correctly. Like all teams we've examined the car up and down to look at places to cut the fat and they'll find more but sometimes the risk of damage from snagging a rock or a bad collision is too great. Its not a great idea to build the car anticipating a rollover but nobody will tell you its a bad one (especially me, having my share of upside down time).

      Ours is not exactly a unique strategy. I'm sure nobody starts the year out and says "ok lets build a car that lasts about 2 hours before we break a vital component that strands us in the middle of the bayou. I'd love to see this thing dragged behind a tractor for 3 and a half miles pissing shock oil all over the place!"

      But you know how it is, we were there too at one point.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I think your own car for Wisconsin is a good counterexample to your statement that "a car that does well in the endurance race is likely to do well in almost all other events if driven correctly." You got 5th in the endurance race, but you didn't break top 15 in any other dynamic event (... 52nd in acceleration??). Your other cars did better, but you are a prime example that disproves this statement.

        From what I can tell from looking at pictures and videos and looking at the results, SBU and Cornell have two distinctively different approaches to the designing and building process:

        SBU builds a strong, previously sound car and then tries to update it. Any new technology they put on the car has been well tested in the past and isn't anything new to the market. They create a car that runs, then try to make it run better. This allows them to finish the endurance race with good time and sometimes do well in the other events.

        Cornell comes up with some crazy idea, not well known in any industry and completely unknown in Baja, then tries to make it work [i.e. carbon fiber drive shaft, rear steer]. They seem to innovate from day one, work hard and hope it works out. Cornell is the team to look to for something not seen before in the sport. They use methods and materials not well tested and seem to be changing things as late as during the competitions. This allows them to do well in the short dynamic events and design, but not do well in the endurance race because they break something or something goes wrong.

        The two teams have two vastly different approaches to designing a car and their cars show it. If I were in the market for a reliable but no-frills car (like for long distances), I would look to SBU's car. If I were looking for a car with all the bells and whistles that guarantees a fun time, Cornell's car is car I would be riding. I may not be able to make it long distances without some minor (or even major) repairs, but I sure would be having the time of my life while driving it (and from the article, that seems to be Tim's reaction too). As far as I'm concerned, that is what a Baja car is to me: a car to enjoy driving.
        • 5 Years Ago
        You have a point on the Wisconsin car. The car got out late due to what you might want to call "staffing" issues. There was a lack of testing as well as much seat time for the drivers to feel out the new car. That's really no excuse since you have an entire year but everyone's aware that things should have gone differently. I have to give them credit though because they did great even though they lost a majority of the experienced members due to this horrible phenomenon called graduation.

        While I didn't attend, I hear the team last year was a bit shocked at how much weight the rest of the field had lost. When I went in 08 we were quite middle of the road and when the team arrived in 09 they felt like they were showing up with a Buick. I can't honestly remember what we weighed in at both years but i know that they showed up about 50 lbs lighter than the year before and still felt a bit fat.

        I agree 100 percent with your analysis of the design approach of both cars(Although I'm sure Cornell does a lot more actual engineering than you let up in your description). I will also add that using either approach does not deny you a chance at 1st place overall in this particular competition. That part is a combination of luck/driving/racing and the how abusive the terrain is on the machine.

        If they were going to be sold and marketed I have to disagree with you on which one I'd buy and I'll tell you why.

        High performance and exotic almost always means high maintenance and expensive. I'm not actually a racer so I don't have time for that. If I'm going to drop $XX,XXX on a recreational machine, it needs to be a reliable form of recreation with tested components that won't sentence me to a weekend of dissassembly/reasssembly to replace some component whose service life cut in half to lose a few ounces.

        (Disclaimer: I'll admit this analogy is not exactly apples to apples due to the briggs engine being more of a throw-away-and-replace part of the car than the engine on an MX bike)
        I owned and ridden MX bikes on and off for about 7 years. The ratio of seat time to wrench time to do the scheduled maintenance on these things and keep them fresh is pretty damn unpleasant. Unless you've got few other commitments to keep up with or have the pockets to have a shop do the maintenance you're sacrificing one whole day of your weekend to ride half of one. The other half of the day you're cleaning the nooks and crannies, cleaning and oiling air filters, checking chain tension, adjusting valves, replacing pivot bearings and seals. Now that I have the full 9-5, grad school, the commute, the social blah blah blah, bills, overtime, traffic, rush hour, etc, I'd rather just have an off-road toy I can hit with the power washer for 10 minutes, dry off with a leaf blower and lube up with a grease gun and throw it in the shed.

        But that's just me and maybe I'm getting old and crotchety.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Glad you got to see beautiful Ithaca, NY. You should go back in January some time, and try driving. I used to watch cars try (and fail) to drive up the hill outside my apartment window. My favorite was a Mitsubishi Eclipse with summer tires, trying to get up the hill during an ice storm. It traveled further sideways than it did forward.
      • 5 Years Ago
      This is a great article, especially for my alma mater, with one exception. The suicide rate note.

      Anyone who has gone to Cornell knows that is totally false, the suicide rate is no higher than at any other ivy league institution (not sure about the others). When a kid hangs himself in a dorm room at Harvard, it isn't sensationalized the same way a body in the gorge might be. Check the stats, if you can find them, i know I'm right. But I can attest to the fact that the engineering school is a brutal challenge that I would probably not do again in hindsight.

      Back to the article, Cornell has always had amazing competitive engineering teams. The SAE team is an annual trophy hauler. I was part of the CUHEV team and we did pretty well. I have no doubt these guys are also doing good work while slaving away in the autolab (thats no longer sponsored by GM is it?)
        • 5 Years Ago
        What years were you on the CUHEV team? I was also part of the team from 94 - 96.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @stucker136 Apologies, I've updated the article to indicate this is false.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Wow I can't believe this all happened in one day.

      I realized that saying what I said before was a little too harsh especially since I know all the Baja teams across the world put their life and soul into their vehicles. I didn't mean to take a stab at Cornell. We personally met them at last June's competition and they were nothing but sincere to us.

      In response to the arguments above:

      I was also impressed by Cornell's designs previous competitions with carbon fiber and rear wheel steering but again design isn't everything. You can't have a beautifully designed car that doesn't run.

      The endurance race is the biggest part of the competition (400 points out of 1050) and the real test for all the cars. When we're designing and building the car, the most important thing we make dam sure of is that we finish the endurance race with at worst a flat tire. Of course if you do well in the endurance race you probably did ok in all the other dynamic events.

      I know Cornell is a good team and will continue to be a good team. Like toofst2frius4u said if Cornell's design made it through the endurance race then they probably would have done better than us overall.

      Again I apologize for adding fuel to the flame before. I just wanted to get my two cents in.
      • 5 Years Ago
      What's so innovative about catastrophic failure caused by defective welds? Budgets have nothing to do with a poorly built car.
      • 5 Years Ago
      @Epyx I seem to remember Cornell, the apparently not REAL engineering school, doing your impact attenuator testing for you last year! Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me though... :-)
      • 5 Years Ago
      ...Maybe its time to glue the car to a wood base and call it a trophy, because unless it survives the race thats all it really is. Your argument can be basically summed down to "We would have did alot better if we just done well."

      And as my well grammared friend said, you cannot wait for money to fall out of the sky. Stony brook went from this: ($4000 budget, I was there...)

      To this:

      In 5 years all because of initiative of the students. Until the team didnt prove to everyone that they were serious, no one took us as such.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Cornell went from this:

        to this:

        in 1 year. If I do my math right (I'm sure you kids at Stonybrook will get out your calculators to check me on this), but 1 is less than 5 (right?).

        And seeing that Cornell is the team featured on Autoblog (or is that Stonybrook's car I see in the article and I'm just mistaken), I would have to say that these students have taken some initiative. But that's just me.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I was the captain for the Ohio State team for the 2008-2009 season. Baja SAE is a great program, and Cornell has a great car. Always pushing what you can do with Carbon Fiber.

      There are three competitions in the US this year, and are a great time if you want to see some racing (and carnage).

      Greenville, SC: April 8-11, 2010
      Bellingham, WA: May 19-22, 2010
      Palmyra, NY: June 10-13, 2010 (includes the Amphibious event)

      The interesting days are the Last 2 days of the competition. The last day has a 4 hour endurance race of wheel to wheel racing, and the day before is dynamic events like Acceleration, Mud Bog, Rock Crawl, Sled Pull, etc.

      If you are near any of those places, be sure to come check it out.

      More info: http://students.sae.org/competitions/bajasae/

      • 5 Years Ago
      I prefer the Michigan Tech teams. ;)

      Go Huskies!!!
        • 5 Years Ago
        The Michigan Tech FSAE team will be ready to go before the snow melts. Its actually dumped a foot on the ground last night and we'll probably have 2 or 3 by the end of the day.

        Go Huskies indeed.
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