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More than just a score: Competing in international FSAE EV contest adds up for UNM students

July 20, 2023 - By Kim Delker

The 2023 UNM Formula SAE team at competition in Michigan.

The saying that it’s about the journey, not the destination, would be an apt way to think about The University of New Mexico’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineering (FSAE) LOBOmotorsports team.

In June, the team competed in the Formula SAE international electric vehicle contest at the Michigan International Speedway, placing a respectable No. 30 out of 75 teams registered. And this ranking was earned all without even getting the car started, much less performing on the racetrack. But as John Russell, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the FSAE program, points out, the score or ranking is not the whole story. The fact that the team even made it to competition is a feat in itself.

“We did get a car to competition, which is better than the 14 teams who didn’t,” Russell said.  

But without getting the car to run, that means there was no testing or validation, so the team could not be scored on a majority of the contests: acceleration, skid pad, autocross, endurance and efficiency. The important thing to the team is that they followed through and attended competition, he said.

UNM scored relatively well in design (“We had a great-looking car,” Russell said), but the judges cited a need to not just build an attractive car but to have analysis of all design choices — an understanding of why the car was built the way it was. The team also completed the presentation and the cost competitions. Overall, UNM scored better than a lot of big-name schools, such as Purdue, Rutgers, MIT and University of California – Berkeley.

The UNM team passed the mechanical inspection, but when it came to the electrical, that’s where the team needs the most growth.

Russell points out that building a race car is a complex task, even for the largest and most well-funded teams. And that task has only gotten more challenging when the team switched to building an electric car a couple of years ago. For a program that has historically leaned mostly on mechanical engineers (this year’s team had 25 mechanical engineers and six electrical engineers), switching from pistons to circuits presents a new set of problems.

“The electrical part of the car is the hard part,” Russell said. “The mechanical part we know, but the electrical part takes a lot more people.”

Luckily, the team utilizes the skills of Gene Kallenbach, a faculty member in electrical engineering formerly at Sandia National Laboratories, to teach the ECE 419 course as part of the program. (And FSAE also has Mike Arnold, an experienced shop manager who worked with the Al Unser Jr. on the Indy Car circuit for many years before joining the FSAE team at UNM in 2017). 

However, there is still a huge need to attract more electrical and computer engineering, computer science and other students with experience with electronics and coding. It’s also imperative that students have a desire to work hard and be curious. Russell said he is encouraged by having a math major on the 2024 team, who brings different skills and a willingness to ask questions and put in the lab time.

For engineering students already busy with courses, putting in additional work for FSAE puts the program at a disadvantage. Russell said the reputation for it being difficult can be a barrier to attracting students, especially since it’s part of a class, not an extracurricular club.

In the end, however, what the team members get out of being a part of FSAE is worth it for the skills they learn and the contacts they make.

“Companies like Tesla attend and hire students right on the spot,” Russell said. “Companies love FSAE students because they are ready to work on engineering products right out of school.”

Real-world experience

Nathan Wolff, project manager for the 2024 team, said the experience of building a car and going to competition was valuable for him now and going forward. His role in Michigan was to observe and plan for this upcoming year’s team.

“I learned so much from the experience,” he said. “I learned about what needs to be done to pass all the technical inspections. Before going to competition, I did not fully understand the scope of these inspections. I also learned what it takes to win the competition, and it is a lot.”

He said as a leader of the next team, he learned from the experience of observing that in addition to an engineering project, FSAE is very much a competition.

“For my career, this experience has shown me the competitive nature of engineering. Not only in the competition that we were there for, but also for jobs in the engineering industry,” he said.

Wolff said he knows the task ahead is daunting, but that FSAE is worth all the hard work.

“I think that FSAE is the absolute best opportunity for students to experience real-world design, teamwork and project management,” he said. “What FSAE does is put students that participate in a completely different resumé group, a more sought-after group. Several large manufacturers are present at competition and ready to take resumes. They want FSAE students!”

Russell, who joined UNM in 1993 and has been director of FSAE since 1998, works closely with the diverse team of undergraduates each year. He has overseen the opening of a new lab for the program in the last few years, the Dana C. Wood FSAE Racing Lab and Garage, which he said makes UNM’s facilities one of the best in the nation.

He oversees the design/build/test process, as well as numerous public appearances in the community, fundraising and making the taxing journey across the country each year to international competition. In the days of internal combustion cars, the competition was in Lincoln, Neb. But since the team made the decision a couple of years ago to compete with an electric car, the competition is in Brooklyn, Mich., not far from “motor city” Detroit.

It's about the engineering

The contest is hot, stressful (both physically and emotionally), expensive and there is far from a guarantee of a successful outcome. So with Russell in this position far longer than his team members have been alive, what motivates him to keep going? For this former aerospace engineer and Air Force veteran, it’s about the engineering, of course.

“From the day I conceived this program, it has always been for one purpose — to graduate engineers who will be the best in their field,” Russell said.

He said the competition is a beneficial aspect, and the team has garnered a long line of awards over its history, but in this EV contest, the team is basically learning skills from the bottom up, and it takes years to find that excellence.

For students who are looking to work on a tangible, immersive project that will teach them job-ready engineering skills, FSAE is a great program.

“What it does for students is that it gives them a great challenge,” he said. “They have to work at it and see the value of what they are getting versus the cost.”

Russell said there is a lot of opportunity with the UNM program, including attracting more team members from different disciplines. There are plans to work with the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and possibly working with a faculty member from civil engineering to outfit the car with remote sensing.

“I am motivated by the potential,” he said. “We have so much going for us.”

Get involved and donate

Students interested in enrolling in the FSAE program should contact their academic advisor.

The Formula SAE program is funded almost entirely through private donations. Contributions can be made online.