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Baja team students engineer tough car for tough terrain

Joe Daubenspeck ’10, left, and Josh Kaufman ‘09 with last year's Baja vehicle.

It’s a fully functioning off-road vehicle, built to climb hills, navigate tight curves, haul logs, and—if necessary—roll safely. And it’s designed almost entirely by Lehigh students.

Joe Daubenspeck ’10, one of the car’s creators, will occasionally give visitors a tour of their workshop in Mohler Lab.

“Down in our shop, usually we have some extra metal on the floor. I say that we took metal—just like those straight pieces right there—and turned it into this. It really puts it into perspective,” he says.

Daubenspeck and Josh Kaufman ‘09 are co-captains of this year’s Baja SAE Team. The mechanical engineering majors lead an eight-member team that created an off-road vehicle to compete against similar cars in an international competition, which will be held in Montreal on June 11-14.

The competition is hosted by SAE International, an organization dedicated to providing standards and information to those involved in the creation and distribution of land, sea, air, or space vehicles. SAE International sponsors several collegiate design competitions, ranging from mini aircrafts to snowmobiles.

Lehigh University boasts of two active SAE design teams: the Formula SAE team, which builds an on-road vehicle, and the Baja SAE team.

After a few years of inactivity, the Baja team entered a car in last year’s competition, an experience which the students describe as their “learning experience.”

This year will be different, assert Kaufman and Daubenspeck, who are building a more cohesive team and a more competitive car.

“We did a lot of things on this year’s car that we didn’t have a chance to do last year,” Kaufman says. “We’re really excited about the chance to see how it will perform when it’s all put together.”

Seven of their eight team members will attend the Baja regional competition in Montreal this year. Kaufman, who will be attending a wedding during the last two days of the competition, expects his car to finish among the top quarter of entrants.

Kaufman’s confidence stems from the team’s early start. While Kaufman completed his fall internship at General Ecology, Inc., in Exton, Pa., Daubenspeck and the other team members began designing and testing parts in last year’s car. With each test, they tweaked the design and improved its parts. During the spring semester, the team buckled down and designed and built their car.

“Almost everything is different. We might have based it off the same design as last year, but we improved it dramatically,” says Daubenspeck, the fourth generation of Daubenspecks to study at Lehigh.

“All the chips were down”

Kaufman takes last year's model out for a spin.

Kaufman came to Lehigh hoping to join the Baja team, but when he arrived, he discovered that the team had temporarily dissolved due to lack of interest.

At the end of his first year, Kaufman’s mechanical engineering professor, Ron Hartranft suggested that he resurrect the Baja team the following year. Hartranft, who retired after the 2006-07 school year, had advised the 11 Lehigh Baja teams since the university first entered in 1979.

“I’m not much of a motor head,” says Hartranft, whose interest lies in sailboats. “It seemed like a good activity at the time for students to use course work and apply it to something that has an element of fun.”

Although the 2007 Baja team began with 20 interested members, by competition time the team had dwindled to two, Daubenspeck and Kaufman, who could attend the June event. Shawn O’Donnell ’09 and John Grelis ’10 provided design support but were unable to attend last year’s SAE Baja competition.

One week before the June event, Daubenspeck and Kaufman met to assemble the car. They labored day and night until noon Thursday, June 7, 2007, when they drove to the competition at Rochester Institute of Technology in northwestern New York. After they arrived, they continued to work on the car until they went to sleep at 2 a.m. Friday after 72 hours without rest. By 11 a.m., the next morning they were once again working on the car.

The car was finally complete at 4 p.m. Friday, but it failed inspection. The Lehigh team discovered that they had misinterpreted some of the guidelines and were required to modify the brakes, exhaust system, and fuel overflow assembly as well as replace some of their bolts.

As they began working on their car, teams from other schools offered tools, support, and advice. The Lehigh engineers and some of their new-found friends worked without sleep Friday night to make the car’s brakes compliant to SAE regulations.

“It’s amazing, the comradeship. The other teams were insanely helpful,” Daubenspeck says.

Over the weekend, the car preformed a series of rigorous tests, called the dynamic events, which included maneuverability, acceleration, hill climb, and suspension and traction courses. Kaufman and Daubenspeck each drove two of the four tests. Saturday’s events were completed with only a few setbacks, but during an endurance run Sunday, a sprocket on the output shaft broke, ending the team’s attempt at the 2007 Baja SAE.

Joe Daubenspeck’s father and car enthusiast, Pete Daubenspeck ’81, provided support and advice throughout the competition.

“I was amazed that they were able to make it through the competition last year. All the chips were down and all the advice was don’t try, but they had to prove that wrong,” he says.

Learning from experience

Lehigh's Baja team built on what they learned with last year's vehicle.

At last year’s competition, Kaufman and Daubenspeck discovered that they could work under extreme pressure with little rest, and they were eager to start on this year’s Baja car.

“This year we would probably be in the same boat as we were last year if we hadn’t gone. We wouldn’t have any idea of what to expect from other teams, or from the competition itself,” Daubenspeck says.

In fall 2007, while Kaufman worked in Exton, Pa., Daubenspeck organized the Baja team and began experimenting with new parts. He also enlisted new sponsors, such as Grob, Inc., DigatronUSA and igus, Inc., as well as continuing relationships with previous sponsors, including the Lehigh University mechanical engineering department, the industrial engineering department, General Motors, SAE, Briggs & Stratton, and SAE Chapter Lehigh Valley, Inc.

When Kaufman returned, they began building this year’s vehicle. Kaufman and Daubenspeck split their time between doing homework and designing their car, and occasionally, a night in the shop morphed into a study session.

“(Kaufman has) taken a lot of the classes that I’m taking now,” Daubenspeck says. “If I have problems and if we’re down in the shop, Josh will show me how to do it or try to remember how to do it so that he can show me how to do it.”

For this year’s competition, the team has prepared reports on cost, funding, and design to enter the static events, which will occur during the first two days of the competition. For the next two days, June 13-14, they will compete in the dynamic events—where team members will drive their creation over hills and through creeks.

“Being able to design something and then fabricate it and actually have the finished part is fun. It’s rewarding at the end of the year when you have a car,” Kaufman says.

“And you get to drive it,” Daubenspeck adds.

To which Kaufman, without skipping a beat, quips: “And break it or attempt to break it.”

--Becky Straw

Posted on Tuesday, June 03, 2008

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