Duke students build, race car

Who said Engineering students spend all their time solving problems in a remote corner of Teer library?

To get their blue racing machine ready for the May national competition last spring, seven members of the University chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) spent days and nights at work.

The experimental car will be displayed in the Intramural parking lot near the West Campus tennis courts today at 1 p.m.

“Performance on the car is far and above any commercial car,” said Engineering senior Dave Zavelson, president of the team.

The Honda CBR 600 engine has the capacity to run at 80 horsepower, but the current design only uses 40 horsepower—still enough to rocket the car from zero to 70 mph in less than six second. Its ground-skimming frame is nine feet long, two feet wide and is made entirely of composite materials.

The car’s biggest innovative leap was prompted by economic rationale: While most designers use spring suspensions, the team chose foam bumpstops rolled around metal shafts, saving $400.

The team manufactured the body using a fiberglass mould. The Du Pont Company donated Kevlar, a synthetic material, which the students fit into a mold. Then they applied a sandwich layer of resin between the Kevlar pieces, which hardened the material into its final shape.

The group experienced difficulty matching parts from sources as different as motorcycles, cars and miscellaneous spare parts.

“When parts did not fit right, we just took a sledgehammer,” said Engineering senior Eric Howard, founder and current treasurer of the team.

Howard started the University chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers in the Fall of 1991 to get more hands-on experience.

Howard and six other students received an initial $4,000 grant from the Engineering School, a $4,000 donation from General Motors, and the blessings of Robert Hochmuth, chair of the mechanical engineering and materials science department.

“They deserve all the credit for this car, I didn’t do anything,” said Hochmuth, who helped the group secure funding.

Despite initial momentum, the first year was rocky.

“We had embarrassed a lot of people who supported us. They had lost faith in us. We were disorganized,” said Engineering junior Andy Leoncavallo. As a result, the group lost its space on campus and had to move to its present location, a workshop located seven miles away that costs $2,000 a year in rent.

After the discouraged group visited the national Society of Automotive Engineers race in 1991, it was inspired to try again in the fall of 1992 with renewed determination.

Ideally, team members commit 10 hours a week to work on the car, although they sometimes only manage to spend six or seven—still an entire Saturday.

“After classes ended [last spring], we had two weeks before competition. Seven of us were working 14 hours a day,” Leoncavallo said.

The last ditch effort was essential because the car didn’t actually function until two days before the first race.

“The first time the car ran, we were all so surprised. We’d been working all day and all night,” said Trinity junior William Kiang.

Just in time, the car was in running order for the national competition in Auburn Hills, Michigan, last May, pitted against 60 other teams and 72 cars. Although the mounts of the differential broke down during a braking test, Kiang said the showing was more a success than a failure.

“We weren’t even sure the car would run,” he said.

“Our big goal was to pass the safety inspection!” Leoncavallo said.

The team took advantage of the opportunity to establish contact with representatives from the major automakers. The team also toured the General Motors proving and testing grounds in Michigan, as well as the technology center.

“We saw the new Camaro convertible before anyone else could see it, we even saw their prototype electric car,” Leoncavallo said.

So far the University chapter has been devoted entirely to the building of the car, but it also wants to include members who would like to participate in other activities. The group intends to bring in speakers from the auto industry to discuss engineering careers. Leoncavallo plans to enter the car in local races as well.


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