NMU Baja club gearing up for Nationals

After a surprisingly strong finish in February’s Michigan Technological University Winter Baja race, Northern Michigan University’s Baja Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) racing club has set its sights on Peoria, Ill., where the Baja SAE Nationals will take place June 7-9.

NMU Baja SAE racing club Vice President Jimmy Hilbrecht is feeling really good about their chances at Nationals.

NMU student Jimmy Hilbrecht takes the Baja buggy for a test drive while preparing for Nationals in Peoria, Ill.

“I really think we’re going to do well: the best we’ve ever done. Our buggy has been performing great, and we’ve got a great team,” Hilbrecht said.

NMU Baja SAE racing club builds and designs one seat off-road Baja buggies to compete against other colleges and universities in Baja races in different states throughout the year.

Baja racing club adviser, Robert Marlor said he knows the importance of experience during races.

“We’ve been a club for quite some time; we’ve made improvements through gaining experience at the races we’ve competed at over the years,” Marlor said.

“It’s like a test of the skills that you learn in college, but used in a real world environment,” said club president, Matt Barbercheck.

The club raced two of their buggies in the MTU Winter Baja Race in Houghton last February, beating their Michigan Tech rivals for the first time in club history. The team placed 10th in their 2011 buggy and 20th in their 2010 buggy.

“Our group dynamics were improved upon enormously and our team chemistry has improved,” Barbercheck said.

The NMU club, which started in 2005, is comprised of eight NMU students. They work on the buggies in the Jacobetti Center machine shop on NMU’s campus.

“The majority of our members are engineering students, but this isn’t always the case. It’s an extracurricular activity that anyone at NMU can get involved in,” Marlor said.

“We want to place in the top 30 in the endurance race,” Barbercheck said. “That would be a great showing for us, and with the lessons we’ve learned from previous National competitions.”

The club has made some improvements to their 2011 buggy when it comes to design. It’s smaller, but much more durable.

“This new buggy is lighter, by about 200 pounds, and has a more efficient drive train and suspension,” Barbercheck said.

Competing at the Baja SAE Nationals isn’t simply a matter of getting to the starting line. SAE representatives and judges ensure that all teams have buggies of equivalent performance and design by checking for compliance with strict speculations. Teams are only allowed to race once their buggies that pass inspection, but are allowed to make as many modifications as necessary as long as they get through speculations without problems before the race starts.

“One of the hardest parts of the sport is getting through speculations,” Barbercheck said. “Fewer than 10 percent of the teams get through specs the first time around at Nationals because they don’t go by the rulebook.”

All teams must provide a design report and cost report; the static events combine for 300 of the 1,000 total points.

“The marketing presentation basically explains what the team did during building that made the buggy cost-efficient. The design presentation has different judges looking at different aspects of the vehicle, like the drive train, suspension and roll cage,” Barbercheck said.

The team has come a long way since their first buggy in 2005, and they hope to use their experience in the garage and out on the track to carry them to a solid finish.

“Our club has made improvements over the years by building upon experience,” Marlor said. “They know how to design and build, and they know that durability is the most important aspect. No matter how fast the buggy is, it has to be able to take a beating and stay in one piece. We’ve got good teamwork too. There is leadership, initiative, and good officers on this team.”

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