May is a much anticipated month for racing fans, but the Indy 500 will first take a backseat as two Brigham Young University racing teams defend their turf and winning tradition against more than 100 collegiate teams in Mini-Baja West 2003, hosted by BYU May 8-10.
One team of seniors and a team of juniors will show off the single-seat all-terrain vehicles they began designing and building in September. In the past five years, BYU teams have had six top-five finishes in the annual competition, which is based on both design and performance standards.
Senior team captain Scott Hill likes the "simple, yet robust, system" his team has incorporated and the "plush ride" its enhanced suspension offers. The senior team's vehicle also has a reverse gear that will help it circumvent breakdowns cluttering the track during the event's culminating endurance race.
He also doesn't mind the extra attention from future employers that his participation in the Mini-Baja competition has garnered. "I've been in interviews where they have asked me about the competition and told me about their own experiences with Mini-Baja as students," said Hill, who has accepted a job with a Seattle materials manufacturer.
The senior team's efforts are part of a year-long course designed to prepare BYU engineers for the real world. The two-semester-long class is called Integrated Product and Process Design, with students breaking up into teams and tackling actual engineering problems for real companies. Coaches like Robert Todd, who guided the senior team, are chosen from the engineering faculty and industry to mentor the students' efforts.
"Engineering education today is too much like teaching classes on the theory of hitting, the theory of pitching and the theory of fielding, but never letting students play baseball," said Todd, also the organizer of Mini-Baja West 2003. "With this class, the students play baseball all year."
The juniors aren't conceding to their fellow Cougars just yet. Team captain Aaron Robison noted that in three previous competitions, the junior team has outperformed the seniors, including last year, when the teams finished third and fifth.
Robison and his squad members built a better drive train that provides more power and acceleration than previous years' and made adjustments to lighten their vehicle. For example, they saved 10 pounds by bending parts of the roll cage instead of welding additional pieces.
"Our strategy is to be professional, like a real automaker, and focus on specific areas we can improve," Robison explained.
With competitive juices flowing, both teams ended up spending much more time on their vehicles than their regular course work would require, including all-night sessions in the machine shop.
"It's pretty painful while you're doing it, but when it's done you just can't wait to race," said senior Hill. "You've used all your creative faculties, plus it's a great excuse to play with tools."