After four hours on a mud-covered track in the American Southwest, the off-road vehicle built and driven by Central Michigan University’s Baja racing team looked like it was slapped together with adobe.
But the Chippewas came out $750 and a plaque ahead — and even more important, their two semesters of designing, building and testing their own car have given them a jump toward key jobs and internships in the auto industry.
The six-member team placed second in the endurance phase of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual Baja SAE California competition. Overall, CMU finished 19th out of 92 schools from around the world.
The event, the first of three Baja SAE races, took place April 27-30 in Gorman, California. The others are set for May 25-28 in Pittsburg, Kansas, and June 7-10 in Peoria, Illinois.
The competitors are college engineering students who design and build off-road vehicles that are put through a number of challenges on rough terrain. The students also pitch the mass production of their vehicles to a fictitious firm consisting of real-life automotive officials.
Benjamin Ritter, a College of Science and Engineering faculty member overseeing the CMU team, said the California results put the group in a solid position to surpass its rivals.
“They had one penalty that kept them from being 13th,” said Ritter, who insists learning and improving both count for more in his book than a competition score.
Dan Garrett, of Livonia, Michigan, was one of three recently graduated seniors who put jobs at General Motors on hold for a few weeks so they can race. He said the crew’s “major takeaway” was a turning problem that’s easily fixable.
“We’re looking to improve and get in the top 10 at Kansas,” he said.
Joining Garrett at GM’s Technical Center in Warren will be teammates Garrett Hammel, of Yale, Michigan, and Grant Martino, of Sandusky, Michigan.
Returning as seniors to compete next year will be Austin Buerkle, of Sandusky, Michigan; Ian Eickholdt, of Rochester Hills, Michigan; and Carson Salisbury, of Beal City, Michigan.
The soon-to-be fourth-year students have acquired “excellent” summer internships, Ritter said, adding that the experience in events such as the Baja SAE races tends to impress potential employers.
Along with the endurance competition, CMU placed:
• 11th in a sales presentation phase in which judges from the auto industry acted as “investors.”
• 18th in an event in which prizes went to vehicles built at the lowest estimated cost.
Other categories were based on design, acceleration, hill-climbing ability, maneuverability and suspension.