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SCORE Journal - The Official Publication of SCORE Off-Road Racing

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BAJA SAE  The Future Great Minds Of The Off-Road Industry By Elijah Sanchez Photos by Jim Ryan Baja racing has given birth to countless legendary drivers, teams, and vehicles. But one doesn’t simply become legendary overnight. Without the work and minds of designers, engineers, manufacturers, welders, fabricators, and everyone who makes a vehicle come to life, it all wouldn’t be possible.  Programs like the Baja SAE Collegiate Design Competition are ensuring that the future of the industry will be in the hands of knowledgeable, capable, and experienced engineers. Baja SAE is an idea spawned from SAE International, aka the Society of Automotive Engineers, a global association of more than 128,000 engineers and related technical experts in aerospace, automotive, and commercial-vehicle industries. The core mission of the SAE is to set standards for these industries, but it has also evolved to give companies a way to recruit university students through competition programs. SAE connects university-level engineering programs in a variety of design competitions such as Formula SAE and Baja SAE. The competitions all started in the U.S, but have gone global. Formula SAE is the pavement counterpart to Baja SAE. In April 2022, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), in partnership with the SAE SoCal section, hosted a networking event to showcase the Baja SAE and Formula SAE programs through its SEMA Garage and SEMA’s Emerging Trends And Technology Network (ETTN). The idea was to introduce engineering students in front of the aftermarket industry. The Baja SAE is an off-road competition where students have the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills from the classroom with real, practical experience in engineering, design, fabrication, and business, through competitions.  The program allows students to design and build an off-road vehicle based on Baja racing. “It’s a small single-seat dune buggy with a Briggs & Stratton engine,” says Dean Case, with SRO Motorsports America, and a long-time volunteer with SAE SoCal. “Along with building the buggy, students have to develop a business plan and cost analysis for it too. It’s a three-day-long competition where on the third day, there is a four-hour endurance race.”  According to Case, the value of the program allows companies the ability to see hundreds of university students to recruit at a single event. “These vehicles act as a rolling resume,” adds Case. “The real magic is when you see someone get a job offer on the spot.”  Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Baja SAE Team’s 50th Anniversary Stassa Cappos is the 2021-2022 Team Lead for the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Baja SAE program. She knows the history of Cal Poly SLO’s involvement in the program and the work the team is doing this year. “Our Cal Poly SLO Baja team began in 1972, and that’s when Ford donated two 1968 Galaxie Taxies. The team back then worked to make those operable for the Baja 500 and competed in the 1972 and 1973 races,” said Cappos. For alumni such as Case, who attended Cal Poly SLO and also participated in the Baja SAE, he’s glad to see it continue for a new generation of students. “It’s great to see Stassa Cappos carry on the Cal Poly SLO tradition set by Bryan Kudela, Rick Sturchow, and others. I can’t wait to see her become a leader in the industry” The Cal Poly SLO team has some history of competing in actual SCORE racing events, with the highlight being the 1981 SCORE Off-Road World Championships at Riverside Raceway. “Roger Mears drove the team’s Toyota 7S truck that year, winning the championship, and it gained exposure for our team back in the day – so that was pretty exciting,” said Cappos. “Back in the ‘70s and early ’80s, there were approximately ten to fifteen people on a team, but now we are up to forty or fifty people. Our level of engineering work has just immensely increased. Our car has become more advanced each year, which is exciting, and we continue to perform well. So from a team size we’ve grown, from an engineering standpoint we’ve advanced, we continue to perform well, and we’re all excited about what we do.” Not The Baja 500, But The Elements Are There  The Society of Automotive Engineers has provided incredible pre-professional opportunities for college students for over forty years with competitions like the Baja SAE. “They start all one hundred-plus cars on the track, and then we drive as much as we can,” said Cappos. The course is three-to-five miles with cross-country terrain, and plenty of technical obstacles like rocks, logs, and jumps.” “We’ll do one to two driver swaps, that way our drivers are getting an hour to hour and half of seat time. We’ll have rapid pit stops if things break. On the course, there are a bunch of people ready to push the vehicles off the course if they get broken down, and they have little UTVs with tow hooks on the back and they’ll pick us up and tow us back to our pits.”  “After all those parts of our competition, there’s a lot that the industry professionals evaluate. Not only the dynamic performance but the sales, cost, and the design aspect as well. Then, we see how we place against other teams. Historically, our Cal Poly SLO team has done pretty well– top ten or so out of 100 teams. So it’s pretty exciting. Each year, we build a brand-new vehicle from the ground up. For our 2020 vehicle, we built our very first all-wheel-drive system, and so we are continuing with that this year and racing our first all-wheel-drive vehicle in our first competition since 2019. Due to COVID, we didn’t have any competitions in 2020 or 2021, so we’re excited to see how this new vehicle performs.” The Race Vehicle The team’s 2022 single-seater off-roader buggy weighs in at a mere 375 pounds. But don’t be fooled by its small size– with fourteen inches of travel in the front and thirteen in the rear, this buggy built from the ground up has been thoughtfully and carefully designed in every aspect and can fly through obstacles on the course. This year’s vehicle also sports an emblem of the 1972 team’s taxi as a nod to the team’s 50th anniversary and legacy.  Sponsored by Briggs & Stratton, every Baja SAE car runs the same ten-horsepower OHV Intek Model 19 Briggs & Stratton engine. “Everybody starts from the same power system, so everything that we do after that is up to us. There are a lot of limitations with the chassis and driver safety requirements, similar to other off-road racing organizations. But otherwise, suspension, powertrain, tires, wheels, and whatnot– it’s all completely up to us to decide how we want to approach that,” said Cappos. “We have a 4130 Chromoly steel tube chassis that we manufacture in-house. We do all the bending, notching, and welding. We have designed a completely custom all-wheel-drive design, and web design and manufacture the gearboxes, gears, shafts, and whatnot. We work with local sponsors to do stuff like the splines, the gear teeth, and the things that we can’t do in-house–but we build everything else.” Cappos continued, “We have a completely custom transmission system this year. Traditionally, we use a mechanical CVT, and that’s pretty common among all the Baja SAE teams. We’ve been in the development of an electronically controlled CVT for the past few years, and this will be the first year that we get to take it to competitions. It’s very exciting for us and we have our fingers crossed that we are going to perform well and be one of the fastest teams on the track this year.” Returning To Competition After COVID “The Cal Poly SLO team is one of more than 200 universities competing this year across a total of five Baja SAE and Formula SAE competitions,” says Case. “Overall, the race itself isn’t the main focus. This is a way to showcase student talent in front of companies who can hire them. This year there are a lot of rookie teams as nothing happened over the last two years because of COVID. But the students are excited to continue this tradition.”  “We’re extremely excited to attend our competition in June,” said Cappos. “It will be the first one since 2019, so we have a relatively young team. Most of our members have not attended a Baja SAE competition before because of COVID. It’ll be a new experience for quite a few students. I’m fortunate to be one of the few who did get to see competition in 2019, so I have a little bit of knowledge of knowing what to expect and I’m excited for the rest of my teammates to get to experience it.” With programs like Baja SAE, the future of the automotive and off-road industry is in good and capable hands. Their dedication, passion, and excitement for their team and program shine through in the work that they do and also give racing, automotive, and engineering companies a way to recruit and hire a new generation of engineers.  SJ  Sources:

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