Keep your eyes open for the October issue of The Blue & White, coming soon to campus. Until then, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting highlights of the upcoming issue online. Among the treats to look forward to: a debate on the merits of Times New Roman, an examination of Columbia’s updated sexual assault policy, and the festive search for magic on campus. Here, contributor Will Holt tells how Knickerbocker Motorsports became a Formula SAE contender.
Unless you happened to catch the Formula One-style race car sitting on College Walk during the activities fair back in September, Knickerbocker Motorsports probably means nothing to you. So, if the name Formula SAE sounds like an alternative to breast milk, here is some explanation.
Organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers and founded in 1978, Formula FSAE is an intercollegiate design competition in which students develop Formula-style race cars that are meant to serve as prototypes for a hypothetical autocross racer. The competitions are set up on the premise that a fictional manufacturing company has hired a team to design this prototype, which runs a full gamut of tests–from overall design to fuel economy–to gauge its viability as a production item.
Columbia University’s chapter of Formula SAE arose in 1997. “Then it was only five to six guys building the entire car themselves,” said Columbia FSAE’s current president, Christopher Correa-Henschke, SEAS ’12. “Their goal was to design and build a chassis.” The two inaugural engines came from a junkyard, and the team spent the majority of its time those first few months stockpiling materials for the years ahead. According to the organization’s website, alumnus Steven Wang built the team’s first chassis himself in the summer of 1998, “spending months in the back of the Wind Tunnel lab with his welder and the tubing.” After graduating, he went on to design for Ford.
“It was just so undermanned, then,” said the club’s vice president, Sakina Pasha, BC ’13. “We didn’t have our first [full] car ready for competition until 2004.”
Nowadays FSAE is currently the only student-run organization on campus to have its own home base, a garage in Mudd that no other student organization has access to. Their $30,000 yearly budget is a considerable help. Building a car from scratch is expensive business.
It’s the team’s effort rather than Columbia’s money that matters, and the evidence is manifest. The FSAE workshop in the basement of Mudd is a cluttered array of power tools, machinery and car parts. The trash bins are filled with tangled wires, takeout boxes, and empty beer bottles from all-night shop sessions. Stepping through the door, one feels as if on the set of Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage, but with someone considerably less intimidating than Jesse James at the helm.
Correa-Henschke’s leadership and that of his immediate predecessors is paying off: FSAE has been growing at an incredible rate, from 15 students in 2004 to 55 students this fall. Whereas the original incarnation of FSAE had the luxury of a small and close-knit group of dedicated gearheads, Correa-Henschke now oversees 10 separate systems operating simultaneously.
This year, FSAE’s main competition is a race: Formula SAE Michigan, in which 120 teams compete, 10 or 20 of which come from outside the U.S. Since the race is every May, several members of FSAE will be tackling their final exams on the road, a challenge that’s often gone hand-in-hand with the timing of these competitions.
The devotees don’t seem to mind; the fact that they’re leaving school in the middle of finals hardly even registers as an issue. Harrison Stokols, SEAS ’14, drove the car at FSAE’s competition last year in California (an alternative to Michigan on the FSAE circuit) and didn’t have a single qualm about the fact that he had to struggle to find the balance between racing and his academics.
“You are locked into the car,” he told me. “You feel like you’re one with the car. The driver wears a double layer fireproof racing suit. It gets extremely hot, but the heat is worth it.”
Last June, the FSAE car didn’t pass the first round of inspections because of damages suffered en route to California – Stokols started with the odds stacked up against him. Every year, FSAE has to dismantle their car to make the cross-country trip, then put it back together before the competition gets rolling. The team is always under a great deal of pressure to make sure everything is in working order, which makes the competition that much hairier. To cut back on last-minute surprises, the team has begun to stagger its cars, beginning one the previous year in order to allow new members to understand the process before they actually start building one from scratch. “It’s something we’ve never done before,” says Correa-Henschke. “But it’s working really well.”
Senior members note that not everyone who joins FSAE is an engineering student, so it’s vital for the veteran members to provide some context before getting down to business. “When I came in, I didn’t know a single thing about cars,” Correa-Henschke admitted. “Some of us don’t when we start out.”
But not everyone who joins is a rookie. Stokols joined FSAE with a serious history in auto mechanics. “At home I drive a stick-shift car that I’ve modified,” he told me. “It’s a 1994 E36 BMW 325is, 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive coupe. I changed the headers off the engine, changed the exhaust, replaced the clutch, and installed a new shifter.”
Even that experience, though, does not mean one is a seasoned pro in FSAE terms.
“I have some experience already from my car at home,” Stokols said, with notable understatement. “But building a car from scratch requires a lot more work than just changing out some stock retail parts on a mass produced car.” FSAE is a unique experience in that students start from square one. Not many people can say they’ve built a car themselves; even fewer can make this claim in the Ivy League.
The influx of new membership has rendered the team far more capable of dealing with the task at hand, but with all these fresh members come planning and deployment problems. As FSAE’s commander-in-chief, Correa-Henschke must grapple with these organizational issues.
“How do you give directions to 55 people?” asked Pasha. “It can start to be a little crowded in here.”
Difficulties arise beyond overpopulation. The team still has to test its prototypes late at night, in empty parking lots across the city, working by cover of darkness–which isn’t necessarily lawful. Formula One race cars are not street legal in New York, and it’s a challenge for FSAE to find a nearby race track.
“That’s something we’re looking into,” said Correa-Henschke. “There are a few tracks in New Jersey that we have our eye on.”
The sheer number of students that have joined FSAE bodes well for the team’s new goals, but despite the 50 plus new members this year, FSAE’s cult-like following goes unnoticed, possibly because Columbia has almost no car culture. There’s something almost clandestine about the way the team operates: late night test runs and shop sessions, competitions on the other side of the country. Its members are an outrageously committed and passionate group of students from all Columbia’s schools, all connected by this crazy, novel idea building a working car from scratch (and by welding scorch marks), but it’s nothing anyone in the group flaunts. The students that joined this year came by word-of-mouth for the thrill of the race.
“There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush you get from a formula car,” said Stokols. “It’s awesome.”