Whether it’s a need for speed or the smell of the grease pit, car projects are popular with many Florida Tech engineering students.
When dual mechanical and ocean engineering major Mark Nanney began his studies at Florida Tech in fall 2010, he had already aced the equivalent of a culminating project. He not only completed it, but achieved stunning results.
At Southeast High School in Bradenton, Fla., Nanney was design and manufacturing engineer on the Formula 1 (F1) Unitus Racing team. The team’s little car, in competition with identical, miniature, CO2-powered balsawood F1 race cars, won the Formula 1 in Schools world title in Singapore in 2010. Still onboard, Nanney helped take the team to third place in fall 2011 in Malaysia—the first team in the history of F1 in Schools to gain two podium finishes.
Nanney remains enthralled with cars and motors, but has not yet selected a project to culminate his Florida Tech engineering studies. “Working on Unitus was a great experience. Seeing how everything worked together was an orchestra of engineering and the experience has definitely helped me in my engineering classes,” said Nanney.
Whether it’s a need for speed or the smell of the grease pit, car projects are popular with many other Florida Tech engineering students. In 2009, students worked on a “green” quarter midget car. In 2008, a hybrid with a formula body type was a project, and in 2007, a team focused its efforts on an electric car. Mini-Baja off-road car projects are favorites most years. This year, students in the Florida Tech motorsports program are building a Florida Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE) F1 and a Baja, which, of course, is bigger than a Mini-Baja, but is the same idea—a car that can climb in ravines and over boulders. Another project team is working on how to bring a flying car closer to reality, while the 5th Wheel Aerodynamics team is researching the efficiency of various trailer designs using a wind tunnel.
These teams are among those laboring to produce a product that will show well at the annual April Northrop Grumman (NG) Engineering and Science Student Design Showcase on campus. Judges will also evaluate their written papers and posters. All their work will count when they vie for design showcase awards and when prospective employers stop by to take a look.
Carlos Vargas is captain of the FSAE F1 team, heading up other aspiring engineers who will compete in 2012 against about 100 other F1 teams
in Lincoln, Neb., and Brooklyn, Mich. They’ll work to “wow” with their design and in racing—autocross, endurance, acceleration and skid pad.
“Our car is based on a single-piston 450cc engine from a Can-Am ATV and uses a steel tube frame. We hope to have it completely finished in January 2012,” said Vargas. The car will be painted,” he added, “in our signature, bright, lucky green!”
The Baja team, led by senior Emile Torbey, won approval for their final design and will spend January to April building the Baja. Jorge Mario Abarca, a senior and mechanical engineering major from Costa Rica, will be in charge of steering and braking on the six-member Baja team. “I’ve always really liked cars, and I prefer the idea of an off-road vehicle rather than something like the F1 that runs on a track,” said Abarca.
Where Would We Be Without Mentors? Students in the motorsports program get a huge boost from alumni and friends who enjoy lending a helping hand.
Chairman/CEO of Starport Aviation Nelson Cambata ’78, for example, recently made a multiyear pledge to support the program.
“Motorsports incorporates the challenges inherent to the racing world,” he said. “The camaraderie they experience can translate into great life experiences for the students.”
An owner of the #10 SunTrust racing corvette, which won second place in the 2011 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, Cambata plans to bring together project team members with SunTrust racers for inspiration and leadership. Alumni Clarke Fowler ’80, a senior mechanical engineer and J.D. Van Gilder ’02, a mechanical engineer in the same product design department at Harris Corp., have also lent their time and experience to team members over the years.
“Being a motor head myself, it’s a lot of fun for me to help with the car projects,” said Fowler. He’s been involved for the last four or five years, starting as a judge in the Northrop Grumman Engineering and Science Student Design Showcase, which he continues to do annually. He also introduces the students to his contacts in local industry, including manufacturers who might help the students with parts for their vehicles. Fowler also “shakes the trees,” donating his own money and trying to help the students find donations for their projects.
“I love to be involved, but it’s a good recruiting tool, too,” he said. “I identify some of the students who are really sharp and who might fit well into our company. It’s mutually beneficial.”
In the real-world of car design, Florida Tech took a giant step last fall, when it announced the Florida Center for Automotive Research with Rivian Automotive of Rockledge, Fla., as industry partner. The company, which has an ultra-fuel-efficient car in production, has as its primary investor Jim Thomas ’72. He was drawn to Rivian, he said, by the car’s expected fuel mileage—more than 60 mpg—and the potential for job creation in the area.
Plans are now under way at Florida Tech’s new center to develop and produce a new line of vehicles, leveraging Florida Tech’s engineering research capability.
Rivian Automotive also has a history of its professionals offering help and a critical eye to Florida Tech engineering students. Two of its engineers, Christopher Auerbach and Benjamin Kolodner, have spent time with F1 team members, critiquing designs and giving advice to Vargas on team leadership.
Ready to be a mentor himself, Nanney doesn’t think the F1 will be his culminating project when the time comes because of the past six years he’s spent working on Unitus. Now that he’s designed and built one he’s ready for a project that’s completely different.
“But, I will continue to build on my F1 experience and I’ve been in contact with an F1 team in England about internship opportunities. I hope that my Formula 1 in Schools experience will give me a foot in the door.”