UAA’s student-built Baja car competes this week

by Kathleen McCoy  |   


Baja car 2015

Co-captain Elena Stutzer took it for a spin just before they packed it up for the trip down to Portland. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

The unfortunate thing about the Baja car is its name. Baja has nothing to do with it. UAA's student engineers won't be racing their off-road buggy up and down the sand dunes and beaches of coastal Mexico.

No, their intercollegiate competition is Wednesday through Sunday at Washougal Motocross Park just north of Portland, Oregon. And their engine? A whopping 10 horsepower.

But you won't find seven more excited team members than these mechanical engineering students who've spent a year designing and building their Baja car for the rigors of the Society of Automotive Engineers annual competition. They've raised $22,000 to cover their costs to be there.

Support came from many corners, including engineering firms like Jernstrom, CRW, ASRC and BP. The campus community supports the team, such as ANSEP, the School of Engineering, and Club Council. That doesn't even touch all the family and friends who pony up  contributions.

"It all adds up," said one team adviser. "We are grateful for everything."

They'll face 99 other teams from around the country and around the world trying to out-do each other with design solutions that keep their cars running through tough endurance, acceleration and maneuverability challenges.

Baja car 2015

Check out those treads. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

The work began last September when this team of seniors first designed the vehicle on computer and paper.

"They start in the fall semester and do a complete soft design," said Todd Petersen, an electrical engineering professor who shares team-advising duties with Jeff Hoffman, a mechanical engineering professor. "It's all done on paper with 3D cad software and drawings. They present the design to us, and once we say it's good, they build it in spring."

UAA has had four cars in competition over the last five years. "Every year we've gotten better," Petersen said. "2012 was our best finish. It was the heaviest car, slowest at the event, but we overbuilt it and it just didn't break." For the four-hour endurance test, "we just kept going around and around and around; it was the tortoise and the hare."

Baja car 2015 co-captains

Devon Jones and Elena Stutzer were captain and co-captain of the effort. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

The next year they built a lighter car, "better in many respects," Petersen said, "but, we had issues. Small things." Last year, the team invested a lot in design work-a GPS signal and transponder that broadcast to a cellular network so they could follow the car on a tablet, "but the car's weak points cost us."

The design process is iterative. Last year's brakes were sticky. This year, a team member-who began the design class knowing nothing about brakes-made it his mission to understand and solve the problem. They believe he's succeeded.

With each new car design, the team throws out what didn't work, keeps what worked and tries to improve it. The competition began in 1976, and some schools have been competing every year since. UAA is proud of its highest finish, 33, since it is a relative newcomer to the battle, and also travels among the farthest to compete.

So who is on the team? Devon Jones and Elena Stutzer are captain and co-captain, and surrounded by five others: Valisa Hansen, Jun Mendoza, Galen Baumgartner, Alex Shuckerow and Canyon Lewis.

Jones, 30, is a non-traditional student. In Oregon, he finished an associate degree in business. "That was dumb," he said with a shrug, and eventually headed to UAA for an engineering degree.

Stutzer, 23 and a tiny 5-foot-1, graduated in May and is already working for Jernstrom Engineering. Her tiny stature (lightweight and good for slipping into the driver's seat), plus her engineering chops, made her a natural for the team. But at first, she resisted.

Baja car 2015

The T-shirt. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

As a freshman, she'd seen the senior design class build their car, and she thought at the time, "I want to do that!" But then, HVAC engineering (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) caught her eye. "I was so into that," she said, "I put all my energy there."

Then, along comes Devon, transferring in from Oregon. They met over a class conflict-they each needed the other's class and eventually swapped places. But Devon identified her future value right away.

"He said, 'You're so tiny and awesome, you need to drive the Baja car,'" Stutzer said. "I was like, 'Shhh, no way!' But he kept pestering me and pestering me, my entire junior year: 'You're gonna drive the Baja car, I know you will.' Then we got to senior year and he was 'You're gonna be on the Baja team, right?' I just gave in; I folded. And it's the coolest thing ever."

The night I met Jones and Stutzer, they and their five teammates were packing up the vehicle for shipping to Portland. It was a moment to reflect on the hours and hours of work they'd poured into the project.

Baja car 2015

The logo. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Jones has been averaging more than 20 hours a week in the build phase. "To see it come to life is pretty cool," he said. "I think all of us just stood back and said, 'We designed this!'"

Stutzer has some special duties at the competition besides driving. She'll present a mandatory 10-minute "sales presentation" to the judges, trying to convince them why the UAA design is best.

"We brand it as Alaskan. We're rugged Alaskans, we have rugged terrain," she said. "We know how to design them properly!"

In fact, they test-drove the car at Kincaid Park and it passed with flying colors. The true test, though, comes this week.

A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared Sunday, May 24, 2015 in the Alaska Dispatch News.

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