UR Mini Baja Team Find Balance between Work and Play

Univ. Communications – There are nearly 250 clubs and organizations one can join while at the University of Rochester. However, few of these organizations elicit as high a level of commitment as UR Mini Baja, whose devoted members put upwards of 30 hours a week into the club. Finding time for other things: school, or friends, or work, amid the deluge of Baja tasks isn’t easy. Senior Susana Acosta’s  article about her experience, “The Baja Balance,” was recently featured in Momentum, a student magazine published by the Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE).

For those of you who don’t know, UR Mini Baja, or Baja for short, designs, builds, and races an off-road vehicle in both national and international collegiate competitions held by the SAE. They do pretty well, too. Last year, the group attended two competitions and placed 19th overall out of a field of more than 120 collegiate teams from all over the world. This year, the team is traveling to Wisconsin, Alabama, and Kentucky.

The competitions consist of a variety of races designed to push the cars to the very limit. One example is the suspension race, in which cars are driven over an extremely bumpy course in order to see how much abuse the suspension can take. In another race, the maximum acceleration of each car is measured. The last event in the competition is an endurance race, designed to test the overall strength of the car. Everyone piles into one giant heat and whoever completes the most number of laps in four hours wins. By this point in the day, different components of the car may have been damaged from wear, collision, or poor design, and keeping the car on the track long enough to win requires a bit of MacGyver-esqe ingenuity.

Building the car isn’t simply glancing at last year’s design, making a couple of tweaks, and then sending an order off to a company. To keep the competitions fresh, a certain percentage of the car has to be totally redesigned each year and the SAE rules dictating which engine to use can also change. As a result, the car is basically built from scratch each year. Most parts are designed, custom-machined, and then welded by team members. Parts that are purchased still have to be assembled and fitted onto the car.  Jobs that don’t involve living in the shop also exist. People are needed to design parts, using CAD or other drafting software.  Electrical or computer engineers help out with the instrumentation. The car also requires significant funding outside of the budget awarded by the SA. Finding companies to sponsor the car is an essential portion of the building process.

When Acosta joined the Baja team as a sophomore, she didn’t know anything about designing or building a Baja race car. Her most valuable resource as a beginner was her teammates. Asking them about their designs and listening to them talk about work they were obviously passionate about helped her gain insight into the design process. During the time she was on the team, she designed the brake pedal as well as a splash guard to cover the gas tank and prevent spills. But it was in financing the car that Acosta really found her niche. She obtained sponsorships from Rochester alumni and various groups within the University, as well as several companies. While engaging in this dialogue, Acosta not only developed valuable contacts, but also opened her mind to the variety of career options available to a mechanical engineer.

Feeling overworked and stressed is something every student here at Rochester can relate to; students carry full academic burdens, work in labs actively participating in research, and many also add work to these hectic schedules. The vibrant campus community is a direct result of student involvement in the plethora of wide-ranging clubs and unlocking the mystery of effective time-management is something many students aspire to. Acosta has clearly discovered the key. Besides majoring in mechanical engineering, she also is completing a minor in Spanish and occasionally writes for the Campus Times.  “[Achieving this balance] is something that people tried to teach me for years. But they couldn’t — I had to discover the secret for myself,” she said. And, Acosta’s secret is to truly enjoy everything you’re involved in. “If you really love what you’re doing, you’ll find time for it.”

Article written by Joshua Morse, a sophomore at the University of Rochester majoring in mechanical engineering. The first two photos are courtesy of Sam Sadtler ’11, a student in the mechanical engineering department. The third photo is courtesy of the Mini Baja Team.