A new buggy is under construction (left) as part of the SAE Baja project by the Vehicle Research Institute (VRI) at Western, as seen in this photo. Phot by Daniel Berman/The AS Review

Alex Bacon/The AS Review

From May 19 to May 22, Western will host a competition of 100 Baja SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) teams for the first time.  The first two days will take place at the Lynden Fairgrounds and the last two days at Hannegan Speedway in Bellingham off the Sunset Boulevard exit of I-5.

SAE is a national and international organization of engineers and technical experts.  SAE is the larger organization that hosts and organizes the Collegiate Design Series, which is the series responsible for both the Formula SAE and Baja SAE competitions.

Around 100 teams from the U.S., Africa, Mexico and India, as well as other countries, will compete over the course of four days, said Olivia Scalet, volunteer and communications coordinator for SAE (Editor’s note: in the spirit of full disclosure, the reporter has a professional relationship with this source; however, that relationship did not compromise the objectivity of the story).

“It’s a pretty unique opportunity to show off our school, show off Bellingham, show why we’re one of the top contenders every year,” Scalet said.

Students from Western’s Vehicle Research Institute (VRI) and other majors design and produce a Baja SAE buggy to enter in the competition.

Scalet described a Baja buggy as a pumped-up ATV with a roll cage.  The buggys are designed to do things the average car can’t or shouldn’t do like climb over rocks or up steep hills.

For the last three years Western has consistently placed in the top 10, Tasha St. Clair, the team’s head of composites, said.  St. Clair was in charge of designing and creating the carbon fiber pieces that make up the body of the car, including the body panels, seat and splashguard.

The first two days at the Lynden Fairgrounds are static events, Scalet said.  Sales and design presentations will also take place.  Each team has to present their sales strategies, how they got sponsors, how they paid for materials and labor and how much it cost, Scalet said.  The teams also have to present their designs for the buggy and explain why they designed their car the way they did.

The last two days are dynamic events, Scalet said.  There are four events on the third day, one of which is the rock crawl, which involves the buggies driving over tires and boulders.  In another event, the hill climb, the vehicles have to drive along the side of a wall and up a steep hill, Scalet said. The maneuverability event tests how well the buggies can maneuver while maintaining high speeds. For the acceleration event, the teams must show how quickly their vehicle can go in the shortest amount of time.

On the final day, there is just one competition:  the endurance event.  One driver must drive the buggy around a track as many times as they can in four hours, while 99 other cars try to do the same, Scalet said.

There are three Baja SAE competitions each year, Sam Barill, program manager for the Baja SAE team, said.  There is one competition each in April, May and June.

Each competition is separate and the results at one competition do not affect results at other competitions, Barill said. However, scores from all of the events at a particular competition combine to determine the overall winner at that competition.

The WWU Baja vehicle was not ready in time for last month’s event, St. Clair said.  But she expects the car to do fairly well at the upcoming competition.

“I think people should come to the competition.  It’s going to be amazing,” Scalet said.  “I’m really proud of what we’ve done with it.”

To design and build each buggy, Barill estimates teams spend anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000.  That doesn’t include what teams have to spend on shipping the vehicle to competitions, team travel expenses and other things necessary for a team to compete.

Western’s buggy cost $15,000 to produce.  All the money spent to create the car came from donations.  The WWU Baja SAE team sponsors include the Associated Students, Harley Davidson of Bellingham, Hannegan Speedway (where the dynamic competitions will take place), Irongate Machine Inc., and corporate and private donors. Their largest donor is the BP Cherry Point Oil Refinery.

The only thing teams don’t have to pay for is the engine, which is donated by SAE, Barill said.  Teams are not allowed to modify the engine, the buggy can only have one seat and it has to adhere to some safety guidelines. Beyond that, the design is left up to the creativity of the team.

Western has been one of the top contenders every year in the past and going to the event is a great way to show support for the team, Scalet said.

The WWU Baja SAE team is made up of about ten core volunteers who have collectively done everything to build the car.  St. Clair said she has put in at least 100 hours on part manufacture alone.

The event at Western is almost completely organized by volunteers,  Scalet said.  A core staff of four has been responsible for much of the planning.  Scalet estimates that she’s put in about 110 hours.

Students involved in the design and production of the Baja buggy are usually engineering students, Barill said.  But because the competition includes marketing, advertising and publicity components, there are usually a wide variety of other majors involved in each project as well.

The team is diverse and anyone can join, St. Clair said.

“It’s not just for gear heads,” she said.  “It’s not just for people who want to build cars.”

Barill said the events are designed to teach students project management skills and to give them hands-on experience with designing, building and testing vehicles under different circumstances.

One major benefit for automotive engineering students competing is contact and exposure to companies in the industry, Barill said.  He said representatives from companies like Honda, SolidWork and Polaris volunteer and judge at competitions.  They come to look for people to hire.  Seniors in particular get the opportunity to network with potential employers, Barill said.

St. Clair said the best part of participating in Baja SAE has been the hands-on experience she has gained.  She said she’s learning things that she couldn’t learn in a classroom and is gaining an edge on students who don’t participate.

St. Clair said when she applied for an internship at Ford, one of the application requirements was membership on an SAE team.