UNM Mechanical Engineering Parks Race Car Program in Garage

October 22, 2009

The many uncertainties in the UNM budget have caused the Formula Society of American Engineers program to be put on hold. The three-semester program normally begins during the spring semester for Mechanical Engineering juniors who plan to design and build a competitive formula racing car as their senior design project.

They spend the spring designing the systems for the car and raising money for materials, then build and test the car during the next two semesters. In the summer, after they graduate, they race the car against other university teams. Mechanical Engineering Professor John Russell, who teaches the program, says it gives the students the opportunity to manage a complex project, an experience they are able to use after graduation. He’s extremely proud of the fact that UNM was the largest supplier of engineers to the Honda Corporation Research & Development Department in 2008.

This is normally the time of year juniors would begin signing up for the FSAE spring classes, but this spring the program will not be part of the curriculum. There is no guarantee there will be money in the summer of 2011 to pay the summer salary of a professor to work with students as they race the car they have built.

Universities do not receive state funds to cover faculty salaries for summer instruction. That money usually comes from other funds, which are also used to support graduate students and student competitions. Interim dean Arup Maji says although the school has made commitments for summer 2010 in spite of budget uncertainties, it is not in a position to make such commitments a year and a half ahead of time. Maji says he is reluctant to make a financial commitment that might be difficult for a new dean to fill. UNM is currently searching for a permanent dean for the School of Engineering, and that dean is expected to begin work in the summer of 2010.

That left Mechanical Engineering Chair Juan Heinrich with the difficult choice of cancelling the program. For the past year he has been juggling funds left in the faculty salary line item by professors who were on sabbatical. But for the next fiscal year, he will not have that discretionary money. Heinrich says he would have liked to continue the program, but there was the possibility that the students would be left without an instructor during the final, critical phase in which the car is raced. He said that was unacceptable.

The competitive formula racing car program has always lived on the edge. It was initially started by students working on their own in 1997. UNM faculty began to work with the program, and it eventually became a part of the curriculum. Still, it has been always a scramble for the students to find the $15,000 it takes each year for materials. The students undertake the fundraising as part of the program. Maji says the Dean’s office will contribute $5,000 to support the program as they have in the past. But because budgets have been tightened so much there is no money to pay the summer salary of a faculty member. That is why the program will end.