Duke Motorsports Finishes Its Best

2009-05-27 07:49

The pattern is born out year after year in college sports – teams with senior leadership usually fare better than younger teams.

That sports truism certainly played out at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., May 13-16, where a team of 25 Pratt engineering students, dominated by upper classmen, raced to the best showing by a Duke team in the annual Formula SAE competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Out of 123 teams from across the world, Duke University Motorsports finished 11th, up from their previous best finish of 23rd last year. This is the largest student engineering competition in the world, with over 1,500 students from nine different countries participating in the Michigan event alone. Entrants are required to design and build their cars from scratch.

“For the most part, this team has been together for four years,” said St. Louis native James Montupet, the team’s chief engineer who graduated this spring. He majored in mechanical engineering and economics. “When we first joined we didn’t really understand all that was involved. But by this year, we developed an understanding of what’s good design and will improve the car, and what won’t. For example, we shaved 40 pounds off last year’s 500-pound car. By improving the efficiency of our work, we had more test time to work the kinks out of the car.”motorsport-on-track-den.jpg

The team typically begins the academic year by coming up with a design for an open wheel, single-seat race car. Before any tubes are cut and welded, the car is usually designed with CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. The final design is completed early in the year, at which point the focus switches to actually building the car.

Most of the components of the racer, including the steel space-frame and the carbon fiber body, are manufactured by the students. Other parts, such as the engine, wheels and tires are purchased, but a great deal of customization takes place.

“I’ve spent all four years on team, and it’s been some of the best design experience I’ve had on campus,” Montupet said. “The technical skills needed to build a competitive car with a tight budget and timeframe are so much more difficult and at higher level than anything you’d get in a class. It was an incredible learning experience, both in engineering and in business, manufacturing operations and marketing.”

While the engine comes from a Honda motorcycle, the complete intake, exhaust, fuel, and control systems are modified by the team as they try to wring out anything that could rob the car of its performance, Montupet said.

The final score is determined by a composite of a number of different competitions testing various aspects of the car, including acceleration, braking, fuel performance and endurance. Teams are also scored on detailed documentation of their design and their plans for how their particular design would be mass-produced and marketed. The competition is capped off with autocross events.

The Duke team finished with a final score of 621.8. As a comparison, the winning team, Graz University of Technology in Austria, had a score of 833.5. Montupet felt the team’s score could have been higher, since some of their events took place in the rain.

"We were able to set competitive times even in wet conditions,” said Will Gardner, mechanical engineering and materials science major and team captain and engine design leader. “While we are very humbled by finishing 11th, it was bittersweet at the same time because we will wonder how much better we could have done with dry conditions. Hopefully next year we'll find out."motorsport-team_small.jpg

Team leaders included: David Coccarelli, electrical and data acquisition leader; Michael Spohn, drivetrain design leader; Hardy Shen, body design leader; and Ivan Wang, wheel and brakes design leader. The remaining members of the team were Arjun Krishnaiah, Jason Ethier, Ryan Sellers, Paul Harraka, George Rossin, Brian Zorb, Ben Shelton, Blake Hechtman, Nikita Khylstov, Juan Pablo Garcia, Danny Lin, Alex Berghorst, Bharat Arora, David Piech, Felipe Mejia, Henry Ran, D.J. Shin and Shenren Xu.

“As for next year, having worked with the younger members of the team, I’m not worried about the future,” said Montupet, who will begin a career in management consulting in August. “There is in place a great base to build on, and I think that future teams can be among the top contenders.”