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Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Dragon Formula Racing prepares for first-ever Formula SAE competition
The chassis of the dragon formula race car.

For a team of Howard Community College (HCC) students, the quest for the checkered flag starts not on the race track but in a Science, Engineering and Technology Building lab.

That’s where the team, known as Dragon Formula Racing, is creating a race car from the ground up for the Formula SAE® design competition – an international, Society of Automotive Engineers program where undergraduate and graduate students design and build formula-style race cars. HCC is one of only two community colleges competing in this year’s competition, which is scheduled for July 7-10 in Michigan.

“These students do this completely by themselves, every aspect of the car, including the design, identifying and ordering materials and then testing,” said Craig Murray, associate professor of engineering at HCC and the team’s faculty sponsor. “They’re doing some real hands-on engineering, and the types of skills they’re developing are invaluable.”

The starting line

Led by students and engineering lab aides Jacob Moffit, Jake Brandt, Alex Jones and Zane Robinson, Dragon Formula Racing began as a friendly competition to create a remote-controlled car. Shortly after students began designing the car, they learned of the Formula SAE®.

Murray and Mark Edelen, chair of HCC’s engineering and technology department, quickly “got on board, and the ball started rolling faster than we could catch it,” said Moffit, team captain.

Dragon Formula Racing registered for HCC’s first ever Formula SAE® competition in the summer of 2020 and immediately got to work.

The first step: Studying the 150-page competition rule book.

Dragon Formula Racing’s open-wheeled, single-seat race car has to meet specific criteria to qualify, including a suspension that’s at least two inches above the ground, an intake manifold (where the air and fuel mix before entering the engine) that screws into the engine and space to safely accommodate a driver between five feet, four inches and six feet, four inches tall.

“Once you read through the rules, things start to crystallize,” Moffit said. “Things have to be this far apart, and there has to be this much field of view for the driver. We basically drew up an ergonomic model of a human, just circles and lines, to represent the head, shoulders, hips, legs, and feet. Then we drew our chassis and frame around it.”

Each team leader took on a subsystem. Moffit is in charge of the powertrain – the system that provides and converts power to the vehicle. Brandt oversees the chassis and driver ergonomics, including the position of the pedals in relation to the driver’s hips. Robinson handles suspension, everything between the frame and the road, while Jones is in charge of electrical safety, wiring and data collection, including information from the car’s temperature sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes.

The team then decided which parts it would build and which parts it would buy. For example, students bought the tires but used 3D printing to make the car’s nine-inch steering wheel.

“Luckily the way the rules are written, there’s a lot of freedom because they want the teams to innovate,” said Moffit, who will graduate this spring with an associate degree in general studies and certificates in computer-aided design and additive manufacturing. “It’s a lot of, ‘How can we innovate in a way that makes sense for a first-year team with a smaller budget, less manpower?’”

Building more than a car

To design and build the car, students are using many of the skills they’ve learned in their engineering classes, as well as published research and skills they’ve picked up from each other like welding.

The team considers computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, to be their strong suits.

“Jake, Zane and myself are all graduates of the additive manufacturing program, so we spent two years studying those machines,” Moffit said. “We can leverage them in ways that other teams will not be able to.”

Still, the design and build process has its challenges.

“Design for manufacturing can be difficult,” Brandt said. “It’s one thing to design a car or design the chassis and look at it on the computer and say, ‘That looks really good.’ Once you take that design and start to move into, ‘How do I actually make this,’ you can run into a lot of roadblocks… Any mistake that you might make in a length or a notch on a tube can affect lengths and fits of other things.”

While frustrating, mistakes help improve the final product, Jones said.

“Experiencing failure is the best teacher,” he said. “Going through challenges and being uncomfortable is the best way to experience growth. We all have learned so much since we started this.”

And all those long hours in the lab (up to 20 hours a week) have only boosted the team’s camaraderie.

“All four of us have worked for the lab for two years now, more or less,” Brandt said. “We’ve all spent late nights there, early mornings with that love of projects between us. It certainly helps that we’ve learned how each other think... It's a lot of using each other's strengths to really push the thing forward.”

Driving support

Over the next few weeks, team members will put the final touches on the car and then test it outside the lab.

“All of us know that when we see that car drive in the parking lot for the first time it's going to be the greatest day,” Moffit said. “It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a student.”

And it’s all possible because of the support from HCC and sponsors like Apple Ford Lincoln in Columbia, team members said.

“Without their financial backing, it would have never happened on this tight timeline,” Robinson said.

Chip Doetsch, president of Apple Ford Lincoln, said the decision to back the team was an easy one.

“It applies directly to our industry and the future of our industry,” he said. “Theoretical things you’re learning in a classroom often look different than practical things when you get out in the world and try to make an enterprise out of it. The hands-on aspect and practical application of what they’ve learned helps bridge the gap.”

As for Dragon Formula Racing’s future, team members said they are confident the club will continue even after the four leaders graduate this spring.

“One of the most important things we were here to do is set up a strong foundation for this to continue at Howard and to show a community college is just as capable as a four-year in this competition,” Jones said.

“To be able to participate in it as a two-year college is huge,” Brandt added. “A lot of community colleges don’t have that option, but the engineering program at HCC is incredible. We’re just excited to be able to start this up and see where it can go.”

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