Engineering a best-ever Baja finish

TRAVERSE CITY — Measured by odometer, the NMC Engineering Club’s road to the annual SAE Baja endurance race and its best finish ever clocked in at just under 1,000 miles.

But measured by other yardsticks – including the personal growth and maturity of the students, the slope of their learning curve and the collaboration of NMC faculty — the April trip to Auburn University was an odyssey.

Sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Baja race has been a tradition of the Engineering Club and adviser Jim Coughlin for several years. Teams design, build and race cars over a tough dirt course.

The club was fresh off the winter race, the Blizzard Baja held in February at Michigan Tech, when Coughlin’s son Chris, a former NMC student and Baja racer himself, was diagnosed with a rare strain of testicular cancer.

Accompanying his son for treatment in Indianapolis meant students were on their own to design the car, literally from the wheels up. SAE provides teams with an engine, some design specs and a rule book. The rest is up to them.

“You start with nothing,” said club member Doug Grunder.

In years past, the team spent more time building the car than designing it. This year, design got equal attention. The team felt they had built their best car ever.

“I had the most autonomous group of kids ever for Baja,” Coughlin said. “I was so proud. These kids rose to the occasion and built the car.”

Then, with 48 hours before departure, they hit a roadblock: in Coughlin’s absence, they had to find two other NMC faculty members to make the trip.

Communications instructor Mark Howell and math and science instructor Steve Drake stepped up. Howell spent three years working on a NASCAR pit crew and writes a weekly column for a NASCAR website. But on this trip he was able to see the race track from a new perspective.

“From a professor’s standpoint, it really was a very fulfilling experience to see NMC students not only bring their ideas into reality, and not just make them functional but competitive,” Howell said. “This was an amazing piece of design, a really smart piece of engineering. These kids had really done their homework.”

Nicknamed Daisy, the car lived up to the team’s expectations. They finished 35th overall, their best finish ever, ahead of schools like the University of Michigan, Michigan State and the Georgia Institute of Technology. In the suspension and traction category, their self-designed and fabricated components finished in 15th place.

In Indiana, Coughlin got good news, too. Tests in early May showed no evidence of cancer in his son, Chris. Treatment continues.

“That was spectacular news. There’s every evidence he’ll be cured now,” Coughlin said.

And the Baja 2013 team may have found some ringers. Howell has ideas how to improve the design report, their lowest-scoring area this year.

“I think Steve and I were both adopted,” Howell said. “I’d like to think I’m part of the team.”