By Bill Wood
The California edition of the Formula SAE competition unfolds this weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Few if any will be in the grandstands but it might be the closest competition all year at the track.
Formula SAE is international intercollegiate battle unencumbered with BCS insanity. United States competitions also happen at Michigan International Speedway and Virginia International Raceway. Students from all over the world compete in cars they designed from the ground up with ideas they developed on their own hatched from talent they brought to the classroom. Refreshing as far as racing goes, don’t you think? This is real racing. They live and lose with their own ideas. On many levels, they don’t even do that in NASCAR.
The Formula SAE competition dates back more than 30 years. The idea is that a fictional manufacturing company has contracted a design team to develop a small formula-style racecar. The prototype racecar is to be evaluated for its potential as a production item. The target marketing group for the racecar is the non-professional weekend autocross racer. Each student team designs, builds and tests a prototype in disciplines such as acceleration, skid plate, fuel efficiency, budget, all-out endurance racing and more.
I watched the Cal State Northridge team in a recent practice at Buttonwillow Raceway Park north of Los Angeles. Last year Matador Motorsports finished 12th overall and second in acceleration. In 2007 it was seventh after winning the acceleration competition and finishing third in the autocross.
This year the carbon fiber Northridge chassis is designed around a 600cc Yamaha motorcycle engine that was quick enough to force some suspension and handling issues during the test. Students drive the car in competition but two drivers with Grand-Am road racing experience – Jeff Tyler and Billy Johnson – helped isolate the issues before the team returned to their garage/lab for last minute fabrication changes.
There will be teams faster than Northridge and teams that will finish higher. But watching teams of collegians work together, in relative anonymity, for a grade as well as success on the field reminded me of the heights intercollegiate athletics could reach if it tried hard enough.
Todd Haroutunian is this year’s Matador Motorsports Team Manager. His card includes the tag: Godfather. Here’s hoping when he gets out of school and launches his desired open-wheel career, he’ll be too busy to be pulled back in.Click here to watch video of Team Matador in action