Purdue Baja Racing rises from the mud to the top of the podium

Every year, the intrepid students of Purdue Baja Racing design and build their own off-road race car, competing against other universities in a series of challenges. In 2023, Purdue Baja capped a season of top finishes with a 1st place triumph at Backwoods Baja in Wisconsin.



Purdue students have been building Baja cars since 1983, as part of the annual Collegiate Design Series sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

“We start in the summer with brainstorming and design,” said Kayla King, current president of Purdue Baja Racing. “Then we move on to data collection and analysis, and finally, to manufacturing and testing. We really put this vehicle to the test.”

Their single-seat off-roader can jump ramps, climb over rocks, hoist itself over telephone poles and creekbeds, and basically navigate any terrain you put in front of it — all of it using just a stock 10-horsepower Kohler engine.

Baja SAE cars, designed and built entirely by Purdue students, can traverse almost any terrain. But sometimes their advanced engineering gets covered in a layer of mud!

Competition season is May and June, when more than 100 university teams from around the world converge on an off-road track to put the vehicles through their paces. Cars are rated for acceleration, braking, hill climb, sled pull, maneuverability, suspension and traction. On the final day, cars compete in a grueling four-hour endurance race.

Students’ design and presentation skills are also put to the test, as industry judges scrutinize the teams’ business plans, designs, and decision-making processes.

In 2023, Purdue Baja Racing competed at two separate SAE events. In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, they finished 6th overall out of 78 teams. A month later, they packed up and drove to Oregon, where they finished 5th place overall out of 86 teams.

“The team is very proud of these performances after a long year of work,” said King. “But when this school year started, we really wanted to continue the momentum!”

In October 2023, the team took two of its cars to an unofficial race called Backwoods Baja, hosted by the University of Wisconsin – Stout.  Out of a field of 29 cars, Purdue’s “Phantom” Baja car finished in 1st place, while its older “Viper” car finished in 5th place.

“These accomplishments are a testament to the discipline, communication, organization, and technical skills the students develop,” said King. “Applying the engineering design cycle for these competitions has provided invaluable opportunities for our students to develop their engineering skills and gain real-world experiences. The team thanks the staff of the School of Mechanical Engineering and our advisor, Todd Nelson, for all the support they have given to help the team succeed.”

Students who join motorsports teams like Purdue Baja Racing learn not just the technical skills of how to design and build a car, but also the equally important soft skills of teamwork, leadership, decision making, and problem solving.


Interested in joining Purdue Baja Racing? Contact Kayla King, check out Baja’s website, or explore the many other Purdue Motorsports teams available!


Writer: Jared Pike, jaredpike@purdue.edu

Source: Todd Nelson, tnelson1@purdue.edu