After undergoing some organizational changes in the past few years in order to build a stronger program, the Tufts Racing Team, a student group that designs and builds electric race cars, has recently found success in competition. In a significant victory, they came in first place in the 2015 Formula Hybrid Competition in the electric-only category this past April.
“The Tufts Racing Team began in 2008 under the leadership of Matt Liberatore (E ’09) and with support from [the] School of Engineering Dean’s Office and the Peter and Denise Wittich Family Fund for Alternative Energy Research,” according to their website.
The Formula Hybrid Competition is a part of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Collegiate Design Series, held each spring at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. and, according to its website, is “the most complex and dynamic of the series.”
According to the Formula Hybrid website, the competition consists of undergraduate and graduate student contestants completing challenges through both engineering and design, in building a formula-style electric or plug-in hybrid race car. Contestants are judged according to project management, design, engineering and the completion of various tasks.
Despite the demanding rules, the competition enabled the Tufts team to gain knowledge beyond the classroom, according to Alyssa Hatch (E’15), the team’s co-captain.
“[It] is considered one of the most difficult engineering challenges,” Hatch said of the Formula Hybrid competition. “There’s a lot of stuff that you have to do for the competition that you don’t learn in class.”
In advance of the competition last year, the Tufts team experienced multiple problems, among them a broken motor mere days before the event that rendered a fully functional car unusable, according to Hatch. The team had spent months designing and constructing that car, which was slated to compete in the electric-only category last spring, Hatch said.
“There was nothing we could do to fix it, and it was very frustrating because [the broken element] was one of the few components we hadn’t built ourselves,” she said.
Despite this setback, the Tufts team made it back to the Formula Hybrid competition again this year for the first time since 2012, winning second place in overall points and edging out larger engineering schools like Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Institute of Technology, according to the Formula Hybrid website.
Hatch described the project of building a race car as ambitious at the undergraduate level.
Raymond Bjorkman (E’15), who served as co-captain alongside Hatch, also attested to the effort that was required in preparation for Formula Hybrid this year.
“The months before [the competition] we worked really hard,” Bjorkman said. “We had a lot of really big milestones ahead of us, even with two weeks left. We pulled some really late nights.”
Hatch believes that their victory was owed in part to the team’s problem-solving skills.
“We, as a team, are really good at solving problems, even if the tools we have in front of us aren’t ideal,” Hatch said. “Tufts is a relatively small engineering school, so we have limited resources compared to some of the other teams.”
Bjorkman agreed, saying that the teamwork was the key to their victory.
“I think it all came together for me seeing the teamwork at [the] competition,” he said. “There was this moment where we had to scramble to fix something at the last minute, and everybody was involved.”
Along with limited resources and a smaller engineering school compared to larger universities, another challenge for the team was not receiving outside assistance in the engineering process, according to Jamieson Breig, a junior in the School of Engineering, who is also a member of the team.
“The rules are very clear that we don’t get any design help from people who aren’t students,” Breig said.
Professor of Mechanical Engineering William Messner served as the team’s faculty advisor this past year.
“[His role is] mostly [to] help give advice for time management and [help] the team leaders have goals,” Breig said.
According to Messner, the team was experiencing difficulties when he first assumed the role; he noted that there had been a lack of effective team leadership.
“There was a lot of pressure to terminate the program,” he said.
Messner noted, however, that the team has truly established itself in the past two years.
“My opinion of the club has turned 180 degrees,” he said. “I’m 100 percent behind it now.”
Messner also praised the team members on their ability to play to their strengths outside the more technical building process.
“Three hundred points out of 1000 [at the Formula One competition] are making presentations about [the] design and [the] program,” he said.
Despite being a relatively young organization, the team has grown to a membership of around 30 students, according to Breig. To attract members, the team goes to the Activities Fair and to various engineering events, often bringing the car with them, according to Hatch and Bjorkman.
“It usually draws a pretty big crowd — it’s a race car, so it’s pretty cool looking,” Hatch said.
Breig said that he is the proof that this strategy works.
“Freshman year during the club fair, I saw the old car which they had brought up the hill, and I joined there on the spot,” he said.
Although the club is comprised mostly of engineers, Hatch emphasizes that anyone can join and be a valuable part of the team.
“I wasn’t an engineer when I joined, so for me personally, it’s an important project of mine to get people to realize that they don’t have to think of themselves as engineers in order to join a club like this,” Hatch said. “Anyone can learn to do things — that’s what you’re in college to do. We’d love to expand and get more [people from outside the Engineering School].”
Hatch also noted the changes within the team, as they have been working on forming more of a community among members in the past couple years.
“This project used to be a smaller group of people in a garage, putting this car together,” she said. “But in recent years we’ve moved a lot more towards having a team environment.”
Among the changes is that the team is broken up into more specialized groups to accommodate people’s schedules and areas of interest, according to Breig. He believes that this organization of the team was a large reason for their success the past year.
“[Our meeting frequency] varies, but I think once a week is probably the average,” Breig said. “The goal of making a car that meets all the rules … is such a daunting task unless there is a team of people working on it with good coordination.”
Both co-captains were extremely pleased with the team’s performance and motivation this past year.
“Our team has had an underdog story,” Bjorkman said. “I’m really glad we were able to overcome [our obstacles] and really show everyone that we were working hard the whole time, even if it just paid off now. To be able to show our sponsors and all our supporters that we’re able to design a car and race it, which is pretty challenging, really means a lot to us.”