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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