Eddie Gardiner, ‘19, works on the car the Lehigh BAJA Team is building to race in mid-June on Friday, April 15, 2016. Each year the Lehigh BAJA team designs, manufactures and races a single driver off-road vehicle. (Alexis McGowan/B&W Staff)

Club Corner: Baja Team designs, manufactures and races cars

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The Lehigh Baja team, a student-run organization that designs, manufactures and races an off-road vehicle, is going to its first competition since 2012 this June.

The members are completing the finishing touches on their off-road driver and preparing to test the vehicle in order to prepare for the competition taking place June 9-12 in Rochester, New York.

Jonathan Whitcraft, ’17, the captain of the team, has been a part of the team since his freshman year and is excited they built a car this year. He explained the club was not serious enough to bring a vehicle to a competition until halfway through his sophomore year.

“The club was not really a thing until last year,” Whitcraft said. “The last time the Baja team went to a competition was 2012.”

After a heart-to-heart at Dunkin Donuts around a year and a half ago, the members of the Baja team decided they were going to reach out to more people, split up roles and build a prototype.

From around March of last year to the end of August, members built a prototype in time for the club fair so they could attract new members. It was important to have a vehicle to show prospective members they will get the chance to not just design, but manufacture as well.

Whitcraft said members of this student-run club really get a hands-on experience.

“This is really where you’re applying what you learn in the classroom,” he said. “You’re never going to learn how things are put together unless you’re doing it yourself in the shop. A lot of the kids at Lehigh are book smart, but this is a great opportunity to get people involved in the shop and outside of their classes.”

Zachary Diekel, ’16, joined the club the day after he quit a Lehigh sports team.

“(I) heard about it freshman year, but I just didn’t have the time,” Diekel said. “I was really bummed about that and when times freed up after quitting the wrestling team, I was able to get involved, and it’s grown into something that I want to make that my life.”

Diekel’s role initially was to design the drive train, and he later became a manufacturing leader who guides people with what they’re working on.

“(My role is) a hybrid of personally designing stuff and managing what other people do,” he said.

Diekel is a mechanical engineering major but attributes a lot of his passion for engineering to the team. After Lehigh, he is going to graduate school for automotive engineering.

Earlier this month, the team engineered a “rolling chassis,” a model that can be pushed but does not have a gas pedal to move. They plan to have it powered soon so they can begin aggressively testing the vehicle for any mechanical issues.

The members had an aggressive timeline for the model, wanting it to be complete in April so would have time to fix things after they get it moving.

The Baja Society of Automotive Engineers competition consists of four courses on the first day: acceleration, maneuverability, suspension and traction, and the hill climb. The second day is a four-hour race. The team’s main goals are to pass the technical inspection and survive the race this year.

“This is all new to us,” Whitcraft said.

They’re hoping to gain experience and build momentum so next year the team can expand, spend a lot of time designing the car and place at the competition.

The club is largely made up of juniors, and the team’s goal for the future is to increase participation among underclassmen and promote the importance of putting what is learned in the classroom to practice.

“Next year’s goal is to build momentum with younger freshmen and sophomores,” Whitcraft said. “The day after the competition starts, the design for the 2017 car begins.”

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