Four Stories of Building Cars from Scratch

What is Baja SAE?

Baja Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE)® consists of competitions that simulate real-world engineering design projects and their related challenges. Engineering students are tasked to design and build an off-road vehicle that will survive the severe punishment of rough terrain. Students must function as a team to not only design, build, test, promote, and race a vehicle within the limits of the rules, but also to generate financial support for their project and manage their educational priorities. Teams compete against one another to have their design accepted for manufacture by a fictitious firm. The object of the competition is to provide SAE student members with a challenging project that involves the design, planning and manufacturing tasks found when introducing a new product to the consumer industrial market.


Story 1: Aaron Goldin (Class of 2020)

Rainbow Road in Kentucky

When I told some of my friends back in high school that I had joined the Baja team here at the University of Rochester, they asked me two things: who in their right mind would trust me to drive an off-road vehicle, and what does car racing have to do with engineering anyway?

Baja is an engineering club. The goal of the club is to design, build, and compete with the best off-road vehicle against colleges across the country and world in various events. But the winners are not the teams with the best drivers. Yes, you need to know how to drive the car. You need to fly around corners at 30 mph like nobody’s business. You even need to know what to do when you get stuck a foot deep in the mud (wiggle the wheel madly). But none of those things determine the winners. The best team is the one that builds the best car.

Going into Baja, I was under the impression that each team could build any car they wanted, then fight for the number-one spot in a sort of Mario-Kart-in-real-life setting—I pictured carts shaped like giant rubber duckies, giant strollers, and maybe even a Harambe-themed vehicle. Unlike Mario Kart, however, winning the race is not about having the hippest car; it’s about building a system designed specifically with the competition in mind. You need aerodynamics. You need a car that has the ability to turn to avoid crashing into trees. The key is that creativity is permitted, but you need to think about the implications of every decision.

That said, it’s not like the cars are all boring skeletons of steel; if you want to put flashing lights and a funky-sounding horn on it too, that’s allowed. Most of the vehicles at Midnight Mayhem, the annual midnight race in Kentucky, were covered in all kinds of psychedelic colors.

Engineering is about being creative, even when it looks like there isn’t any space left for creative thought. There’s a requirement for the type of motor you can use, a specification for the arrangement of your wheels, rules about the very materials you can build your cars out of. It seems there’s barely even room to design. But when you’re at a competition, there’s clearly a difference. Some cars move at breathtaking speed, but can barely turn. Some carts are so heavy with gearboxes and extra frame pieces that they can hardly make it up a hill. Others—and this actually happened—look like they’re doing great until they plunge down a hill, lose traction, and do a full-frontal flip. In this competition, the team with the best engineers, not the best drivers, is the one that emerges victorious.

Story 2: Dylan Borruso (Class of 2019)

The New Member Experience

My first year on the Baja team started in January of my freshman year. I am in the strange position of only having been on the team for two semesters while the other sophomores are nearing completion of their third semester on the team. I first heard about the Baja team at the spring club fair where someone wearing a racing helmet put a slip of paper in my hands, inviting me to the general interest meeting. Later that week, I was sitting in the Hopeman conference room learning about the Baja team. After getting a tour of the shop, I decided I was going to show up that weekend to see if there was anything I could do. The details of my first weekend in the shop are unexciting; without my safety training, I could only shadow other members while they worked on manufacturing parts for the car. However, I got involved with manufacturing shortly afterwards.

I became much more involved with the team over the next few months as the car neared completion. I got involved with some of the team’s recruiting efforts. We attended a few events held for prospective students where we would talk about the Baja team. Each time, we would push the car across campus, or lug a box of random parts to wherever the event was being held to draw attention to our table. I got pretty good at pitching the club to both people interested in engineering and those interested in other subjects. Our team has a surprising amount of diversity in majors (as you’ll see in Story #3) and everyone can learn something from being on the team regardless of the degree they are pursuing. I also had the opportunity to hear senior members of the team talk about the car a lot. These events were probably the times I learned the most about how the car works outside of competition.

Going to completion is a unique experience. My first competition took place in Cookeville, Tennessee. The drive there was longer than any I had taken and in a larger group than I had ever traveled with. These drives—when you are stuck in a van with six other people for 12 hours at a time and only a stack of CDs for entertainment—are the greatest team bonding experiences. They are the reason that everyone on the team knows stories about every other member that they honestly have no right knowing. There are so many memories I have from competition, like being up all night trying to get our brakes working so we could be cleared to compete in dynamic events despite the hours of work that went into the brake system before competition. Or being on carnage crew during the endurance race and having a car flip ten feet away from me while trying to push a disabled vehicle out of a rock pit. Tennessee was probably one of the most memorable experiences of my freshman year. My friends and family are probably tired of me telling stories from competition, but I will continue to bring home more Baja stories anyway.

The competition in Rochester in June was an equally positive experience. I remember staying up in Rettner because the team we were hosting from India was working there. Spending time with the Indian team was a great experience. Seeing all the cars at competition and knowing the hours of work that went into each one of them, just so they can be raced a few times a year, is always impressive. But watching Team Helios put their car together from scratch in under 24 hours was a whole new level of crazy. Even more impressive was when they managed to take second place in acceleration.

More recently, I have become involved with the design of the 201617 vehicle. I helped design the gearbox and spent a lot of time working on weight reduction measures for this year’s gears. I also was involved in the manufacturing of these parts and spent about 130 hours over three weeks in the student shop milling the part. At the end of the project, I went with the rest of the drivetrain team to Gleason Works in Rochester to drop off the gears. Gleason is one of our sponsors and we work with them to manufacture the teeth on our gears and apply a heat treat to the parts. We were fortunate enough to receive a tour of their shop while we were there.

Working on design projects provides unique first-hand experience with engineering. In every job interview I’ve had, my time on Baja has been a major talking point. Even as someone pursuing a degree in optical engineering, potential employers love to hear about the actual experience I have working on an engineering team. The connections I have made being part of this team are some of the most valuable I have, and being on the team has been a truly positive experience for me.

Story 3: Scott Saucier (Class of 2019)

Baja as an Economist

Baja SAE is well known among the college engineering community. However, outside of that group, it remains a mystery for most. I am interested in business, politics, and economics, so to most, it does not make sense that I participate in Baja. For that reason, when I talk about Baja—which I do a lot—people either forget I am not an engineer or ask me why I am not. My response is generally along the lines of, “I don’t need to be an engineer to be a part of Baja” or, “I don’t want to be an engineer. I just want to do Baja.” Most people who participate in Baja see it as a practical application of engineering theory and nothing more. While it is, indeed, an application of engineering theory, it is also much more.

As a double social science major, I find a great deal of satisfaction in my participation in Baja. For one, I have been able to explore my interest in working on cars and racing, both of which are passions of mine but irrelevant to my majors. Is Baja just a hobby for me? Absolutely not. While I joined Baja because I wanted to pursue my passions, it has become an incredibly useful tool to further my education and future career prospects. I have moved up through the ranks rather quickly, becoming business manager as a sophomore. In title alone, being the business manager for a Baja team will be useful in a job interview.

On top of that, I have learned a great deal. I am far more capable working on a team, more adept at research and organization, and I have learned how to work with business professionals in the real world environment when seeking sponsorships. Without Baja, I would be stuck living out my college days just working through one economic model after another, just to get a degree in something that sounds relevant. Now I get to do that and work with people as if I am an associate in a real-world business, an analog to engineers realistically applying their theories through Baja.

In the end, I put a great deal of work into Baja and I have hardly even contributed to any design. I let the engineers take care of that. What I am able to do is work on our cars. I get to fabricate, build, and repair parts of the cars. With the knowledge I have collected by working closely with a team of engineers, I have learned enough about engineering to the extent that I am able to contribute to relevant discussions about our cars.

These contributions I have mentioned come more from my own diverse interests than what my majors say I should be doing. Let’s say, for instance, that I had zero interest in the cars. We can say that I never touch the cars or participate in shop hours. I would probably be less effective at my job, but I would still be able to contribute a great deal to the team. I am able to budget and put in orders. I am able to work with sponsors. I am able to help the team run as effectively as possible. Figuring in the passion I have for our cars and competition, I am able to contribute a unique skill set to my Baja team.

As I said, I have never designed anything. I am not an engineer, but I am a relevant and impactful member of the team. Sure, it may take a bit more explaining to convince a potential employer that Baja sets me apart from other applicants, but that does not mean I will not get that point across in the end. In fact, I would say Baja sets me apart from those in my areas of study while my areas of study set me apart from the plethora of engineers in Baja, both to my benefit.

Story 4: Christopher Plunkett (Class of 2016)

Reflections From a Recent Baja Alum

Entering college, I was not entirely sure what to expect. Having grown up in a small town, I was not entirely prepared for the bombardment of new clubs, activities, and social functions that college had to offer. When walking through the campus activities fair, I found myself immediately overwhelmed by the possibilities. However, one booth immediately stood out as one of the most exciting and new activities that I could be a part of. The possibilities that this group seemed to offer were too fascinating to pass up and I soon found myself on the mailing list ready for a general interest meeting. I’m sure you have already guessed which booth that was.

I joined the Baja team as a true novice in engineering, and motorsports in general. It was only by luck and the persuasive arguments of former member Kim Heng (’14) that I found myself at the shop for the first of many Saturday mornings ready to start work. It was during this year that I met some of my first friends at the University of Rochester and began to fully appreciate the craftsmanship and hard work of industrial manufacturing. I took a liking to arc welding, a job I would fulfill for the team for all four years of college. The work was always a challenge, but after a hard year of work and a week of very little sleep, we left Rochester bright and early for what would be my first competition. The trip to Tennessee was an amazing experience filled with late-night car work, cheese barns, and some all-you-can-eat catfish. However, what really drew me closer to the team was the passion that everyone showed for the vehicle. It was the kind of dedication that could only come from a year of work and was truly inspiring. After that wild Tennessee competition, I was definitely hooked on Baja.

Over the next two years, I took on the role of the frame project lead where I was able to hone my design, planning, and project management skills. I was responsible for two years of chassis design where the link between engineering coursework and hands-on construction became very apparent. It was also during this time that I began to realize how important Baja would be to my career goals and aspirations. With the skills I gained on the team and the help of our team’s wonderful adviser Professor Sheryl Gracewski, new opportunities for summer research fellowships and industry internships became possible. It was because of this exposure to mechanical engineering that I began to shift my focus toward a more engineering-heavy career. Now that I have embarked on that path post grad, I am confident that my decision to move in this direction was best for me.

Competition also introduced me to students from around the country and the world. Baja truly inspired a sense of global community across all teams. If another team needed anything, whether it be a washer to an arc welder, there would always be someone to step up. Our team benefited from plenty of this help, and the generosity and kindness of the Baja community left a profound impact on me. But even before we befriended new teams at competition, we had become a family back at home. The joy of working with individuals who are both incredibly motivated and wonderfully friendly and open makes even the most challenging of projects a pleasure.

In truth, my favorite part of the Baja season was always the start of a new year, as it would signal the start of many new friendships that would be among the closest I would have in college. We would enjoy late night food together, watch movies together, play badminton together, and travel coast to coast together in an epic road trip to Portland, Oregon, during my junior year. It is these and the countless other memories of good times with friends from Baja that I will remember for the rest of my life. These bonds, forged by a collective will to engineer a superior vehicle, can never be broken.

The beauty of Baja is a mutual sense of passionate and sometimes downright insane dedication to the club shared by its members. While grueling all-night welding sessions and marathon design review meetings seemed exhausting, you could not help but come away from them feeling closer to your teammates, more confident in yourself, and wanting to get back in the shop the next morning to keep pushing forward. It is a feeling that many have shared throughout the history of the team and that will drive us ahead as.

Even now, as I continue on to the next phase of my engineering career, I am constantly reminded of the skills and lessons I have learned while a part of this club. The friends I have made, support I have received, and the happiness I have shared while a part of this organization is something I will always cherish. I hope to stay in touch with this team that has given me so much and I will be eager to watch as new team members take the lead and raise our racing club to even greater heights. I look forward to seeing what other great things the team will accomplish, but above all else, I look forward to seeing the sense of teamwork, determination, friendship, and passion for achievement in the efforts of Baja members for years to come. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you Yellowjacket Racing. You have given myself and countless other students some of the best times of our lives.

About the author


URAdmissions features guest bloggers (both students and staff) who write about specialized programs, events, and opportunities at Rochester.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.