Purdue Baja: Building a race car during a pandemic

Designing and building a race car from scratch is a huge accomplishment. Changing from a 2-wheel-drive design to 4-wheel-drive requires even more perseverance. Doing so remotely, during a pandemic? That's a freaking miracle. Purdue Baja Racing not only pulled this off, but finished as a top ten team in the 2021 Baja SAE competition.



Baja SAE is one of the annual Collegiate Design Series sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).  Students design their own single-seat off-road race car, build it from scratch, and then compete against other universities in a series of challenges.

Of course, 2020 offered some unprecedented challenges of its own.

“When COVID hit in March 2020, the team had already completed building a car,” said Todd Nelson, the team’s faculty advisor. “But all in-person competitions were cancelled. With so many things up in the air, we didn’t know what was going to happen for the next year.”

“We really had no idea if we were even going to be allowed to build a car,” said Morgan Burgett, president of Purdue Baja. “Until a week before school started, we didn’t even know if we were going to have access to our shop.”

Purdue’s other SAE teams – Formula and Formula Electric – planned to re-use their 2020 cars for the 2021 competitions. But the students of the Baja team wanted to take on the challenge of building a new car.

The team members had spent the summer of 2020 working remotely on the car’s design. “COVID made it a challenge to collaborate,” said Anthony Anton, the team’s chief engineer. “We met regularly over Discord and WebEx, and our different subteams started doing the CAD at home. We would do Zoom screen shares, and have to ask people to enlarge their screens so we could see all the fine details of their CAD!”

To make it even more difficult, the team had decided to build a 4-wheel-drive car, which Purdue Baja had only accomplished once before in its history. “Historically, Baja cars have all been 2-wheel-drive for simplicity and weight saving,” said Matthew Kuebel, the team’s drivetrain lead. “SAE had planned to require all teams to go 4-wheel-drive, but with COVID, they pushed it back a year. However, they offered bonus points for teams that did it this year. With our team’s experience, we decided to go for it.”

Going from 2-wheel-drive to 4-wheel-drive affected everything, from the size of the chassis to the complexity of the designs. “The car weighs 100 pounds more, and the number of drivetrain parts alone increased from 70 to 250,” said Burgett. “With more parts, there was a much lower tolerance for mistakes.”

When COVID restrictions loosened to allow students in machine shops like the Bechtel Innovation Design Center, manufacturing began at a dizzying pace. “This semester alone, I’ve spent more than 200 hours machining parts,” said Burgett. “That doesn’t include the time spent prepping the materials or planning out the tool paths. That’s at least 20 hours a week of me standing at the CNC machine!”

Meanwhile, students were working equally hard on their design presentations. In normal years, teams would wait until they physically arrived at the racetrack, and then present information about their car’s design to a panel of industry judges. SAE shifted all these presentations to occur online, months before the actual racing events. Purdue Baja’s design presentation tied for 9th highest among all 156 teams, and their sales presentation placed 5th. (Purdue Formula had similar success, finishing 2nd overall in their knowledge events).

“One benefit of having to do things remotely is that, by necessity, we had really good documentation,” said Anton. “I was ecstatic at the result; I was yelling in my room when I found out!”

Once the car was finished, they only had a few weeks of shakedown tests before the in-person race event in Louisville, Kentucky in May 2021. There they faced a series of challenging dynamic events, including acceleration and braking tests; a maneuverability course; a hill climb; and a grueling 4-hour endurance race. Apart from a flat tire and a dislodged rear shock – and a rather dramatic somersault – the car performed consistently, with every student-manufactured part holding fast for the entire four hours.

Combining their dynamic event results with their previous knowledge event results, Purdue Baja finished 9th place overall among the 57 universities that attended the event. It’s the team’s best finish since 2002.

“This is an amazing result,” said Nelson. “To build a car at all this year was a huge accomplishment, and to completely change their design from 2-wheel-drive to 4-wheel-drive, during a pandemic year, shows some serious boldness. From the beginning, the students took the adversity head on and were determined to turn it into a competitive advantage.”

“When we first started seeing parts come together, we thought, ‘Wow, we could actually do this,’” said Kuebel. “The first few times we took off and saw all four wheels kick up a little bit of dirt, it was very satisfying.” 

“This is a huge milestone for us,” said Anton. “I’m so happy to be part of the team that made a 4-wheel-drive car happen, even in the midst of a pandemic. This will definitely influence how we build cars in the years to come.”

The students are determined to pass on what they’ve learned to future teams. In addition to compiling their design presentations, they have also developed a curriculum to teach their new members the CAD software SOLIDWORKS, giving freshmen a competitive edge before they even begin their engineering classes. Burgett also put those 200 hours of machine shop experience to good use, training newer students in how to use the CNC machines to manufacture new parts.

“Baja is really the defining aspect of my time at Purdue,” said Burgett, who has graduated and moved on to a full-time job with vehicle manufacturer Polaris. “I’ve been involved all four years, and made so many friends, and learned so much. My career wouldn’t have been the same without Baja.”


Writer: Jared Pike, jaredpike@purdue.edu, 765-496-0374

Source: Todd Nelson, tnelson1@purdue.edu


Purdue Baja 2019

Purdue Baja 2016