NU’s Mini-Baja team preps for nationals

NU’s Mini-Baja team preps for nationals

By LaChia Harrison

Each year a small group of students gather in a lab in the basement of Richards Hall with one mission: to design and build an off-road vehicle that will endure the challenges of tough terrain and water.

Even after a full day of classes or a long day at co-op, these students will spend up to eight hours each day working in a lab that looks like an auto shop. A tool chest sits against the wall next to a small blackboard. The beginnings of their off-road vehicle sit in the middle of the lab.

These students are Northeastern’s Mini-Baja team. They compete against teams from other colleges around the world in three events sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

The Baja program was started by SAE in 1976, and Northeastern started its Mini-Baja team in 1985. Senior mechanical engineering major and team co-captain Ben Davies said the Mini-Baja team disappeared for several years, but re-emerged in full-force during the 1990s.

The entire process is run by the students, who control all factors in the design except one – they can’t build their own motor. Instead, teams are required to use a motor provided by the Briggs ‘ Stratton Corporation. Restricting the type of motor makes for a more challenging competition with an “emphasis on design,” Davies said.

In addition to participating in the race, teams must market their design to a fictional company. Senior mechanical engineering major Jim Forte said the team is required to “justify [their design] using sound engineering practices.” Not only does the first-place team need to win a race, they have to be able to convince a company their design is the best.

Last season the Northeastern team created and constructed a vehicle that placed in the top 10 in two national competitions. For this team though, the real challenge lies in the finances. Davies said team members contributed significant amounts of their own money last year to meet the expense of traveling and transporting their finished project. This year, money will be less of an issue.

The BOSE Corporation is scheduled to award them a $15,000 grant Feb. 21, including a trailer outfitted with BOSE speakers. Davies said the team also has support from alumni, sponsors and benefactors and the College of Engineering, Davies said.

In addition to donating money, alumni in western Massachusetts have allowed the team to conduct test drives on their property. The College of Engineering has also often displayed the team’s work at open house events.

Co-op employers in the engineering field are sympathetic to the time commitment that goes along with being on the team. Davies said employers have allowed some team members to work on parts while they are at work.

“Co-op employers like to see hands-on work,” Davies said. “They see the benefit of it.”

Gaining skills is not the only reason these students participate in Mini-Baja. The joy of working on the car is a big part of it as well. For middler engineering major Ashton Grandy, “seeing the car work” when it is finished is what he enjoys the most about being on the team.

It is with this final product the Mini-Baja team hopes to attend all three of the national competitions this season. After two top-10 finishes in last season’s competitions, the team’s goal this year is simple: “Win them all,” Forte said.

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