Lehigh’s Baja team looks toward summer competition

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After interest in the club petered out earlier this decade, a group of students reinstituted Lehigh’s Baja team and reshaped the club into a place where aspiring engineers can apply the theories they learn in the classroom to a real-world project.

The team designs and manufactures single-seat off-road vehicles and race against universities from all over the country in Baja — an intercollegiate competition run by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

In 2015 the founding members assembled an elemental roll cage, which is now proudly immortalized on its Instagram. A fully functioning Baja car was built the following year and the group’s first monumental success came in 2017 when the team placed fifth nationally at a competition in Pittsburgh, Kansas.

Looking forward to maintaining that streak of triumphs, the Baja team will be competing in Rochester, New York, from June 6-9. They will have to overcome a technical inspection on the first two days and a series of dynamic events — which consists of an acceleration test to determine the grid start for the following race, a hill climb and a sled pull and a maneuverability course — on the third day.

Performance aside, team leader Ethan Forster, ‘20, said the team also focused their attention on design reports and sales presentations, which previously fell to the wayside in the process of getting the car done. The competition will conclude with a four-hour endurance race on the fourth day to evaluate how well the cars can withstand the harshest elements of rough terrain.

“The perfect Baja car would fall apart as it crosses the finish line,” Forster said. “You want to have your car as small and light as possible, but it also needs to be tough enough to endure the four-hour race.”

Perched on two hefty sawhorses, the new silver engine is the crowning of what the team has been working on over the fall and spring semesters.

Everything is built on the roll cage, which comprises of metal tubes that engulf the car and shield the driver in case of the car rolling during the race. The cockpit is enveloped with carbon fiber panels, from the side of which one of the two wheels that have been installed comically rests on a yellow office chair.

“The competition is set up to break your car,” Forster said. “So although it sounds weird, our goal before the competition is to break the car.”

Baja racing is not only about the people driving the car, but also about all members being resourceful in case any problems arise. In preparation for the competition in Rochester, the team has been working constantly on replicating the jarring conditions of an archetypal race to find weak points and fix those shortcomings before the competition.

Forster said finding the motivation to meet the deadline of a project that is not graded by a professor for a class can be frustrating, but seeing the growth at the end of each Baja season makes that continuous battle worthwhile.

It takes a lot of work to bypass that state of confusion and insecurity in the beginning with all the technical aspects of Baja, he said. Even in such a small team, everyone can get involved and eventually find their place.

The main goal is to compete and place in competitions every year, but the lessons learned and the memories made along the way is why they do it.

For Congnan Shen, ‘20, camping on the side of a race track with the Baja team was a memorable team-bonding experience as everyone got to not only work but live alongside each other for four days.

“We all like cars, and we all like making stuff,” Shen said. “I met a lot of my closest friends in the club.”

Kelly Coca, ‘21, said inside jokes and late-night work are what brings the members together.

“It wasn’t until last week that we got the whole assembly put together, and it was very rewarding because we actually have a car here built from scratch,” Coca said.

Forster said he can still vividly remember when a car flipped during the race. As the car was being towed back to the pits, he said the team immediately sprang into action like “a NASCAR pit crew, but with students.”

Everyone took responsibility for different parts of the car, and they were able to swap out most of the components that were damaged, all under an hour.

Forster said placing fifth in 2017 was a huge achievement for the Baja team, but there was a chance that after the founding members graduated, no one was going to have the motivation to carry on.

To combat this, the team has worked to get to the point where they have developed a system for passing on the knowledge they have gained and the experiences they have had.

“For people my age and younger, our biggest achievement is making sure that this club is going to continue on,” Forster said. “It’s cool to see how we have taken a new club to a point where it could actually be sustainable and kept having a growing number of students joining every year.”

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