The Duke of Sooke Adventures in Kansas
Greetings loyal subjects. You may have been wondering where the Duke has been lately. Well, he has been off adventuring with some companions of his that he met at the University. Quite a silly lot, not content to sit at a desk and perform calculations like good engineers, they venture into the shop, and out into the mud, to burn and maim themselves with machinery in the pursuit of glorious trophies. The SAE Baja series is a student team competition to build a small off road vehicle which is brought into battle against other universities. The Duke has kindly provided a recounting of this year’s adventures at SAE Baja Kansas.
I had finished classes in December, yet, because UBC wouldn’t confer my degree till May, not actually graduated. It hadn’t all sunk in anyways, and so it felt perfectly natural that I would be back at school in the Engineering Design Center, ready to dive into a project. I got a few confused teachers and students approach me. “Didn’t you graduate? Why are you still here?” I’m still here because you are giving me money and free use of facilities to build a race car, asking nothing in return but to go try and win a trophy! It’s my dream come true, and an opportunity I will probably never have again. Of course I am going to drag this out as long as I can.
In truth, I am not a highly competitive person. I don’t get that pumped or disappointed over wins or losses. What I do seek is validation, and recognition. Often, the process of designing and building the car brings me as much satisfaction as racing it, but knowing that my design has been tested and succeeded means the most. In the local drifting community people have recognized my talent for working with what I have, and for what I might call mechanical creativity. But my work on cars is not polished. It’s not done the proper way. I have established talent for seat of the pants, or junkyard engineering, but by building and racing this Baja vehicle, I want to show that I can do it right, the way another engineer can appreciate. The classes I have completed and the degree I attain mean almost nothing to me compared to this test of my abilities.
It starts with a call from Eli, co-captain of the team. Three days, he says, to put together my trailing arms for the rear of the car. Three weeks of 12-18 hour days later, the car is done. I had been living at school, sleeping in the coldly lit, stark rooms of the EDC, where the constant rush of the over-charged HVAC system and accompanied pressure changes made sounds that mimic life in a space station, and the switching of valves and automatic locks in the middle of the night sound like footsteps and doors being opened by security. Thoughtfully, a shower had been installed in the building. I washed my clothes in the sink and hung them up to dry on last year’s Baja chassis. My only taste of real home cooked food was when Eli’s Mom showed up to feed us delicious chili and cornbread.
There were obstacles all over the vehicle and a serious lack of time to tackle them. I hadn’t modelled the rod ends when I designed the trailing arm, and realized that they interfered at full droop. The brake mount was welded on the wrong place on the trailing arm, requiring major surgery with the TIG to relocate. The bespoke gearbox under construction for the car was behind schedule, and we had to replace it with last year’s Polaris ATV based drivetrain. A machining error meant that the half shafts were too short to make it out to the trailing arms. We had to shorten the lateral links and add shims to narrow the track without causing too much toe out. The first driving test bent the gearbox mounts when the chain tried to ride up on the sprocket. The brake pedal assembly, after two revisions and rebuilds, still would not work, and was bending under the insane pedal force needed to stop. Finally, we discovered that Wilwood had accidentally shipped us 7/8” master cylinders in the packaging for 5/8”. The CVT guarding was fully an afterthought, started and finished in the last two days before leaving for comp (kudos to Dan). The removable gas tank box was abandoned, and last year’s heavy fibreglass spill pan was reused as we ran out of time. By this point, we were all overtired and loopy, making obvious mistakes in our work and laughing at jokes and references that made no sense at all (Vaseline Metropolis? Riggers? Jim/Gym Time?)
After a successful 5 minute driving test in the alley, we concluded that the car was ready to go. There was a debate over more testing time or painting the car. I left back home to gather my stuff for the trip, and when I returned, it must have been determined that paint was more important, as it now wore a fresh paint job. A paintjob composed entirely of primary colors. Maybe I am just sensitive to color choices, but depending on how I looked at it, it either reminded me of a tractor or a Ronald Mcdonald sponsored ride. I was really not impressed. The execution was well done however, thanks to Jeff’s handiwork and experience in autobody. To top it off, final weight of the vehicle was a whopping 466lb due to the number of afterthoughts and rushedly built components. Truly a tractor. I was really down on the whole thing at this point. How will a 466lb car with 10hp be competitive against those teams with cars well under 400? After all that had gone wrong, I was still able to stand back after an hour or two of brooding and admire what we had accomplished in such a short time frame. Now that I think about it, my own drift car uses the exact same color scheme!
The competition was to be held in a little town called Pittsburg (no h on the end) in Kansas, some 34hrs of driving away. We initially considered using Dan Rae’s Mazda pickup with a small trailer, but after examining the state of his frame rails and the whopping 100hp under the hood, we decided that idea was insane. Instead, we were able to get a sweet deal on a pickup truck rental with unlimited km. This was not easy. No rental place would allow us to tow with a truck, and only our contact at Discount OK’d us to actually place things in the pickup truck bed. Yes, you can rent a truck, no, you can’t haul anything with it. Awesome. The truck was a tan F150 with a glorious v8 and room to seat six.
On Monday morning, we loaded up the truck and headed out. The Baja vehicle fit just between the sides, with the rear tires hooked over the wheelwells and the front tires on the tailgate. All the empty spaces were crammed with our tools and luggage, placed in garbage bags to keep them dry. Every time we wanted to take the vehicle out it would be a massive unpacking, and we wouldn’t be able to leave the truck out of sight due to fears of theft. Crossing the border was uneventful, other than the agent insisting on disposing of the apple Boric’s mom had packed for him, as it was a seasonal fruit, and unlabeled. The uneventfulness continued for several days as we crossed Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, taking 4 hour turns at driving. Southern Oregon was quite beautiful, and I felt like I was driving through a perfectly detailed model railroad set. The desert of Wyoming was also very impressive, and all the ATV trails carved out in the hills made it very tempting to pull out the Baja for a little fun. When we all were too tired to drive, we took a break at a rest stop in Utah at about 2am. When we attempted to go to sleep, it was about 20 C outside. We woke up shivering at 4am as the temp had dropped to near 0! We fired up the truck to get some heat going, and hit the road. A quick stop in Fort Collins Colorado really opened our eyes. It was a beautiful town bustling with activity, hotties everywhere. We wanted to stay, but had to press on.
It was my turn to drive leaving Fort Collins. We had printed out directions from Google Maps, but had failed to realize that our route included Toll Roads!! “Fuck toll roads!” we exclaimed, having bad experiences with them in the past, and went our own way to avoid them. It turns out the tolls would have added up to only a few dollars, whereas we probably wasted $50 in fuel finding an alternate route. Once we were back on track, near the border of Colorado and Kansas, a rather impressive storm loomed ahead on the highway. A quick check of the weather information seemed to indicate it would be OK to proceed. As we got closer to the center of the storm, it became dark, with intense rain and wind slowing us down to a crawl. Even with the wipers on full, we couldn’t see a thing except flashes of lightning every few seconds. There were plenty of headlights passing by from cars leaving the storm, but few daring to go our direction. Vaughn rechecks the weather for tornado warnings, but the reports seem inconclusive. We press on. A few hours later we make it through, and are exhausted enough to look for a hotel room rather than sleep in the truck. All the hotel rooms seem to be booked. Vaughn strikes up a conversation in French with some out of place looking individuals with a decked out minivan, who seem to share our predicament. Storm Chasers from France! Turns out they are all very excited about this particular storm that we drove through. The next day, we learn that the storm spawned several tornados later that night and disrupted air travel from Colorado, leaving our fly-in teammate Kevin stranded in the Denver airport the next day.
We make it to the campground in Joplin, Missouri, just across the border but fairly close to the site of the competition. This is when the ‘Murica really starts to settle in. Our campsite is a small cabin with AC, a fridge, and a microwave. In front of it is a pond filled with ducks and catfish, which we are told we can catch and release. The site manager is pouring some sort of black liquid into the far side of the pond, and we decide to stay away from it. In the horizon is a bunch of neon signs. Mcdonald’s, Wendies, Love’s ( a truck stop). In the lot across the road, several hundred semis sit idling as their drivers sleep in the comfort of their cabs’ AC. In conversations with locals, we discover almost none of them know of the existence of Pittsburg, despite it only being a 45min drive away. In fact, asking directions from any of them seems to be futile. This is further confused by the fact that in the area, highways with the same number run both east-west, and north-south, intersecting each other. Over the course of the week we were lost for probably 6 or more hours in total. We joked that if we had brought a GPS, the extra time spent sleeping or preparing could have won us the event. The roads were also different in subtle ways. For example, if you need to use an exit on the freeway, prepare to brake from 120kmh to about 30 as the exit will drop away to a sharp off camber turn with no signage. In construction zones, prepare for the cones marking lanes to taper until they are forcing you off the edge of a bridge with no barrier left on it.
Kansas, at least the South east portion, had a certain charm to it. Part of our commute to Pittsburg was on the historic Route 66, which now looks derelict and abused by years of storms. During one of our drives we saw a sign pointing down a dirt road which read “Field of Dreams”. We thought for sure this could have been the site of filming for that movie. Joplin, the town we were staying in, was ravaged by a tornado only a few years ago, and many areas have not been rebuilt. It’s a beautiful, warm, humid part of the country, but there always seems to be such immense, threatening energy moving overhead.
On a trip up to Kansas City to pick up our aforementioned teammate Kevin, I was pulled over by a young and slightly nervous county police officer, who congratulated me for being the first Canadian he’d pulled over, and after his computer seemed to have trouble looking up Canadian driver’s licenses, he let us off for speeding with parting words that he was the “last one out here as far as you’re going, so if you wanna go fast…” We continued at the speed limit.
The first day of the event was devoted to organizing/registering teams. Many cars, including ours, were not quite ready to run, and as we did some final work on the cars, much time was spent socializing and lending/borrowing tools from other teams. The overall mood was great, teams were helpful, and most egos were left at the door. Everybody wanted to help each other compete. It was much like the attitude at Capital Drift events. I walked around to snoop at other peoples cars and just see what their stories were. I was amazed at all the different ways teams solved the same sorts of problems. I often think of the Baja rules as being overly restrictive, but teams still find a way to stand out. Vaughn and Eli gave a great sales presentation to the judges, earning 41.33/50 points, ranking 23rd. That night, nearly all the Baja teams were escorted to main strip in town for a Cars ‘n Coffee type car show, where we gabbed it up with locals and other teams. I was able to strike up some conversations with designers from more mature (and higher placing) teams. It felt good to know from these conversations that I was not too far off base with some of my opinions about suspension design for Baja.
The next day we had our engine checked over and approved, and I participated in the Design Presentation. The judges were extremely impressed with our thought process, and improvements over last year’s car, though our lack of preparation for the presentation was obvious. Our notes were disorganized; a binder of photos fell apart on the floor. We scored just 80/150, ranking 36th, but the fact our earlier report was late meant an additional 30 point penalty. I don’t know how we could have done better under the time frame we were left with to build the car, other than sending in the initial report sooner. We literally wouldn’t have had a running car if we had taken the time to solidify our presentation.
After the Design Presentation came Technical Inspection. This is where the inspectors go over the car in detail, checking everything against the rules. It turns out our frame was too narrow around the drivers head, and we were forced to weld in extra bars. As is tradition at UBC Baja, we covered these bars in pink. “Pink for We Didn’t Think!” Other than this, our arm restraints were not dated, which led to a mad dash to find replacements before closing time. Vaughn was able to give a store cash to forward to a second store, in return for that store leaving the restraints outside for us to pick up after closing. It was a gamble but it paid off, and we were able to help a neighboring team with the same problem by offering our second pair.
Saturday signalled the beginning of dynamic events; A Braking test, followed by Acceleration, Sled Pull, Maneuverability, and Suspension/Traction. We spent the entire morning trying to get our brakes to lock up on the hot pavement, along with many other teams. During the attempts, one of our CV shafts overextended and sheared the last 1/8in of splines, leading to some 3 wheeled braking. Luckily we had a spare, and didn’t have any issues again. We think that it was just assembled incorrectly or came apart during install in the vehicle. At about 1:00 a final no mercy stab on the pedal by Kevin locked up all 4 wheels. This left us only 4 hours to complete all the days events. For each event we get 2 possible attempts, time permitting. Our first event was straight line acceleration. With Kevin at the wheel, we managed a run of 4.038 seconds, ranking 27th. Rather than a second run, we moved on to sled pull. We had decided that because Dan was the most redneck, he should do the driving. Solid Suzi squatted down and pulled the sled effortlessly, with no sign of slowing down as the weight shifted forward on the sled. The official had to break into a run to keep up with the car. We were excited. Then, Vaughn signals Dan for another run. We are in the stands confused, as the agreement was one attempt per event until we had all under the belt. On the second run, Suzi performs even better. It turns out our first run was 1st place, and then we had beaten our first time to make sure nobody came close! The first win of an event by UBC Baja!
Next up was Manueverability. As I had experience with throwing cars around a track, as well as being the suspension designer that could learn from the run how to tune the shocks, I was selected to drive. The first half of the track was amazing. Solid Suzi handled great, turning neutrally and precisely around the corners. At about the half way point, I took a line too wide at an off camber mound, and ended up having to reverse to make it. From there, the corners got tighter, and attempts to induce oversteer at a slower speed didn’t pan out, leading to more reversing. I was basically experimenting on each corner having no driving experience with the car, and hoping for a solution that would lead to a solid second run. The overall ranking for my run was 32nd.
From there we moved onto Suspension/Traction. The Suspension course is a more open course with jumps, logs, and a pile of concrete blocks that the driver has to get the car over. Points are based on how much of the course is completed, and if completed, what time. Due to inexperience with the car, Eli took a turn too sharp early in the course and snagged a marker, ending the run. Our position was only 66th. And with that, we had to end the day, as we were out of time. Overall we were happy to make it through all the events, and the 1st place in sled pull really eased our spirits as well. The overall feeling was that the car had lots of potential; we just needed more time driving it.
Day 4: Endurance. It’s a 4 hour race on a 1.5 mile course with all sorts of jumps and obstacles, wheel to wheel with all the other teams. The score in endurance makes or breaks a team’s effort in Baja as it is worth a whole 400 points. We knew our car was durable, but heavy. We felt the best way to win was to hit the obstacles hard and fast to make up time for our slow straight line acceleration. Vaughn started the race, but got only 4 laps under his belt before the bolt holding the secondary CVT pulley came out and jammed the CVT. This killed over 30 minutes of track time in repairs. Vaughn returned to the track, but came back after only 2 more laps. This time, the car was moving very slow, it had no power. Our neighbors in the paddock at U of T had just melted parts in their CVTech CVT, and as we had also just had a CVT failure with the same model, we immediately looked at the CVT. It turns out the CVT was fine, and the throttle cable was the issue. We attempted a fix on the throttle cable, and I was sent out as a driver. My first few laps were fast, but again the car started to lose power. I brought it back in, and we fiddled with it some more. Another few laps, and the same problem happens again. Finally, on the third attempt we realise that the plastic cable sheath was melting and sliding inside of a metal guide. We sent Eli out for the rest of the race with only 50 minutes to go. Eli put his foot down, passing many of the cars on the field and clearing massive air off the jumps. The car took the beating with no complaints, and Eli managed laps hovering around the 4 minute mark for the remaining race, bringing our total laps up to 22, good for 49th. Our top lap time was only 3:55, not far off from the lap record of 3:45. If not for the wasted time on the throttle cable, our Endurance performance would have been very impressive. The car ended the race with absolutely no signs of damage to the suspension after wowing the spectators with jump after jump. By the end of the endurance race, carnage was everywhere. Many of the vehicles had suffered major suspension failures and didn’t make it to the finish line; Team members were beaten, bruised, and dirty. That night after collecting our plaque for the Sled Pull, we tried to take up an invite by McGill for a parking lot party, but we really had run out of steam. I volunteered to DD the team to the party, but couldn’t keep my eyes open at the wheel and we turned back. For us the insanity had lasted a month, not a week, and all we wanted was to collapse on any horizontal surface we could find. Overall, our team had scored 37th overall with a 1st place in one event.
The drive home was even more uneventful then the drive there. We stopped in Wyoming for a little off-roading but the elevation made the 10hp car feel more like 5hp, so we packed up after an hour and drove nonstop till we were home. We crossed the border in the wee hours of the morning and I passed out once again in the EDC. It’s now time for me to pass on the reigns for suspension design since I have actually graduated now. I have a feeling next years car, with some small changes, will be a serious contender on the field.