A group of mechanical engineering students are taking their learning from the classroom to the racetrack this year for their senior design lab by building an off-road car that is both ready to race and fulfills certain engineering requirements.
Jake Malinowski, a senior mechanical engineering major and captain of the VT Rally team, heads an ambitious group of students who hope to build the newly founded crew into a legacy project for years to come, in what has so far been a bit of an underdog story.
But VT Rally has faced its share of obstacles while attempting to get the project off the ground. There are already several similar established student automotive engineering groups, such as Formula SAE and Baja (which also designs an off-road vehicle) on Tech’s campus that provide direct competition for build space, faculty advising and other key resources.
Malinowski said that VT Rally’s first big hurdle was convincing a faculty member to get on board with the project. They decided to turn to John Ferris, an associate professor in the department of Mechanical Engineering and also in charge of the automotive research facility at Virginia Tech. According to Malinowski, Ferris was somewhat skeptical of VT Rally’s project at first, but now gives his full support.
“It was tough to convince someone that this is a good idea, to let a bunch of ‘gearhead’ kids build a car for their senior design project,” Malinowski said.
The next step was securing building space for the off-road vehicle. Ware Lab, a large advanced engineering building right across from McBryde, has a multitude of garages. The VT Rally team ended up securing the last open garage available for students to use, because the other aforementioned Tech automotive engineering teams already owned most of the garage space. The VT Rally team was also tasked with cleaning up the garage, which was a bit rundown and filled with a bunch of old parts.
In the meantime, VT Rally consistently worked on gathering sponsors and convincing them that the project was worth funding. They contacted many automotive companies and had success with firms like Volkswagen and Federal Mogul, to name a few. Even the local South Main Auto Service was willing to assist the team by offering to change the oil and perform other types of maintenance on the car, all for free.
The team’s personal goals include taking their project to the UTV Rally Raid, a four hour off-road endurance race that varies locations from Alabama to Tennessee. The team will go up against company-backed squads like Yamaha and Polaris, and is currently the only collegiate team entering into the event.
“However, the most popular type of team are the ‘weekend warriors,’ who buy a Polaris, modify it, and then take it to the race,” Malinowski said.
The off-road vehicle will also fulfill several required engineering goals such as running on alternative fuel, having a large (20-inch) suspension travel and a completely custom chasse. The team also wants to include telemetry that will send real-time updates from the car to the pit crew, such as speed and location.
“We’re going to try to be ambitious and see fuel levels, as well as possibly including real-time video with Go-Pro,” Malinowski said.
These design plans will be accomplished by sub-teams that will work on specific aspects of the design such as the engine, chasse or suspension. The team is still in the design phase, requiring 10 hours of work for each member. The sub-teams meet on Mondays and each present to one another what they have been working on. On Fridays, VT Rally meets in Ware Lab to make sure each respective sub-group’s designs are coinciding nicely with one another.
The financial cutoff date is November 1, when VT Rally will either move forward with the building phase if the required funds are met, or the project will be scrapped. Malinowski says that as of now, VT Rally is on track to make their deadline. The team is hoping to have the car built by the end of January and will race in February, March and April.