September 28, 2007

Cornell Racecar Wins First Place in Int’l Race

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With the power to accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.3 seconds, the racecar designed and built by students in Cornell’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers team could leave a Ferrari spinning its wheels in the dust. On Sept. 15, Cornell FSAE won first place for fastest time in the sixth annual Toronto Shootout, an autocross competition between university teams from the U.S. and Canada.
“The thrill of a roller coaster can’t even come close to driving this,” said David Porter ’08, the team’s leader for this year.
Porter has been on FSAE since his freshman year and drove several times in both spring and fall competitions. He and two other students averaged their times to win the competition earlier this month against 14 other teams. In the Toronto Shootout, the team raced its car from the previous year. The event allows teams to bond while scoping out competition for the car they plan to build and race in the worldwide championship each spring.
Cornell FSAE is a project class in the engineering school that encourages students to stretch their creative capacity and create a racecar — from scratch — that will rival the cars from 140 other universities around the world. The main objective is not maximum speed but rather how well the car can accelerate from a standstill and maintain high speeds while zooming around curves and other obstacles, Porter said. At the end of the year, the team selects a handful of students to drive the car in the May competition. Cornell has won the world championship eight times, most recently in 2005.
“It’s challenging because the car is so strange in its capabilities; it takes a lot of practice to get used to it and get comfortable with it,” said Erik Shewman’08, one of the three drivers at Toronto.
The race car is “formula-style” due to its open-air cockpit and the lack of fenders above its wheels, as well as the regulation size of its engine. In FSAE competitions, cars do not race wheel-to-wheel because of safety concerns but rather take solo laps around the track and compare times. At the world championship in Michigan, teams are evaluated on several events, including a figure-eight course, acceleration, overall design, marketing strategy and cost analysis.
“The competition has gotten so intense and the teams have gotten so professional in the last couple of years that you really need to have a winning team as well as a winning car,” said Shewman.
This year around 50 students have signed up to participate on the FSAE team, about two-thirds of whom are engineers receiving course credit as undergraduate or graduate students, according to faculty advisor Prof. Albert George, mechanical and aerospace engineering. The other third of the class is composed of volunteer students from other colleges who have an interest in speed and four-wheeled glory.
Daniel Freedman ’10, an English major, said he joined the business sub-team because he liked cars and took some economics classes last semester. As part of his work on the project, Freedman has corresponded with Cornell team sponsors like General Motors and Shell Gasoline, putting together marketing packets and giving sponsors reports on the team’s progress.
“The American automotive industry wants to promote student exploration of their field … We’ve been at the competition in Detroit in May, and representatives will walk up to team members and just offer them a job right there,” said Freedman.
Companies in the industry recognize the hands-on experience gained by students competing in FSAE competitions, according to Michael Rooks M. ’07, who drove in the Toronto Shootout.
“[FSAE] puts everything you learn in class in context — the abilities you learn as an engineer are invaluable,” said Rooks.
He has been a part of the team for five years since he came to Cornell as a freshman. He said he works part-time now at Aerospace Engineering thanks to a contact he made from the team.
“I find almost every student who’s taken the class says it was the best, the most useful course they took, and also very fun,” said George.
George has been the faculty advisor for the project class since its inception over two decades ago. The owner of five cars and two motorcycles, George has also worked for Harley Davidson and BMW in Germany for a year. According to the rules of the competition, professors cannot lay a finger on the car but can offer advice periodically.
This year, the team hopes to win the world championship title again, after setbacks in 2006. Porter said a lack of protocols last year made it difficult to check that the car was running properly. In two cases, a loose wire kept the car from operating at its full potential. He saw the competition in Toronto as inspirational for this year’s crew.
“Toronto is good for team building because we get to see other teams and get a sense of the flavor of the competition. It’s good for us to see that our car’s fast but not overwhelmingly fast — it’s a reason to work hard this year,” said Porter.