To see more images of the 2007 Formula SAE, launch the slideshow here.
The announcer's been crackling through the PA system since early morning. He's reading from a list of eleventh-hour requests: which team needs a torque wrench and which could use a can of soup or a USB cable or a clean towel. I can hear every word from where I'm standing in the dusty paddock, watching groups of college students in matching shirts swarm around open-wheeled racecars. Actually, they're not all in matching shirts. Some are downright disheveled, as if they had just broken off from a game of ultimate Frisbee. But they know how to swarm. If you've seen a Nascar crew in action, you know the fervent, expertly orchestrated swarm I'm talking about.
I'm at the Formula SAE, a highly regimented competition organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers, the institution that sets most auto-industry standards in the U.S. The contest, held in Romeo, Michigan, a semi-rural exurb about 40 miles north of Detroit, pits student-built 610-cubic-centimeter racecars against one another, testing acceleration, braking, endurance and the time-honored rules of car design and prototyping.
It's not just about which squad of ber-geeks rolls up with a NASA-grade aerodynamics kit or carbon-fiber suspension. To take the first-place trophy and a prize purse of $3,000, a car must outclass more than 100 rivals in a three-day program of punishing challenges. This is where university-level gearheads field the racecars they were building over spring break while their fellow students were slurping tequila in Cancn. It's where the next generation of automotive engineers calculates G-forces, reprograms engine-control software, and adjusts torsional stiffness under the cold scrutiny of judges and stopwatches.
For many of these wrench-twisting, MIG-welding, number-crunching super-brains of the car world, it's the last stop before the big leagues. Perhaps as soon as this year, they'll be working on the vehicles destined for Darlington's banked oval, Monaco's treacherous Virage St. Devote-or your driveway. But for now, all they're thinking about is getting their racecars out onto the track.
The track in question is part of the Ford Motor Company's Michigan Proving Grounds. It's a car nut's dream campus: 50 miles of test roads and a swath of tarmac large enough to swallow several county fairs. Ford uses the grounds to simulate extreme conditions, under which it assesses (and sometimes wrecks) new vehicles before they're sent into the real world. The symbolism isn't lost on me. Formula SAE is where young engineers will either make their bones in front of the top dogs of the automotive world or crash and burn, perhaps literally.