First, the cars must satisfy the Formula. That means open-wheeled and open-cockpit only. They must be powered by a four-stroke piston engine displacing 610 cubic centimeters or less (most are transplanted from Japanese-built motorcycles). Power is limited by way of a restriction on airflow; the intake can be no larger than 20 millimeters (19 millimeters for cars running on E85 ethanol, such as Iowa State's). The wheelbase should be at least 60 inches long. The four wheels must be eight inches or more in diameter and cannot be mounted in a straight line. Don't laugh-we're talking about young, creative engineers out to prove themselves. If the rules didn't specifically ban it, some hotshot would undoubtedly work up the first Formula SAE inline-skate car.
In addition, entrants follow a cover story, the same one every year, to make sure they get a workout that's relevant to the real world. The scenario they're handed is this: A manufacturing firm has hired them to design, fabricate, and demonstrate a prototype car that will be evaluated for production. Their target customer is a nonprofessional weekend autocross enthusiast looking for a reliable and inexpensive racer that's easy to maintain. So aesthetics and comfort are just as important as braking and handling dynamics. The manufacturer also requires the use of common parts throughout the vehicle. The fictional firm plans to produce four cars per day for a limited production run, and the prototype should cost less than $25,000.
Judges rate entrants on separate cost and marketing presentations, which, along with the design evaluation, constitute the Formula SAE's static events. It's the main event that has teams scared. Saturday's endurance/fuel-economy competition is a grueling 22-kilometer (14-mile) sprint with a change of drivers at the midpoint. It's not so much a race to the finish as a fight to keep one's car from tearing itself apart along the way. Any loose ends left during the rush to complete the cars (amid final exams and arguments with abandoned girlfriends) will conspire to become catastrophic malfunctions on the enduro course. And that's exactly the purpose, which is why Saturday's race counts for the largest amount of points awarded: 40 percent. In the end, the judges add up the teams' scores and call a winner from the clouds of dust, exhaust and tire smoke to claim the 2007 FSAE mantle.
Just as he did yesterday, the bespectacled Worthington-I can see traces of the overworked, stressed-out engineer he may someday become-directs another hail-Mary effort to salvage the Rutgers team's fortunes. He's instructed the crew to swap engines, but the backup powerplant, one of two 599cc Yamaha R6 motorcycle engines in their possession, is leaking from a damaged wall. If they can plug the leak with epoxy, they'll have a shot at making it through tech inspection and on to the endurance event. If the judges spot any evidence of a leak at race time, they will automatically disqualify the car, costing the team vital points and sending them off for a long night of emergency tooling in hopes of making up points in the next event. The car would then have to ace the endurance and fuel-economy part of the contest to sustain hope of finishing anywhere near the top of the list. Considering the tension in the air, I'm impressed that no one's stabbed anyone else with a screwdriver.
It's the same kind of pressure they'll face in the workplace finishing a new SUV ahead of a rival company or fine-tuning a Le Mans prototype for a mid-race rainstorm over Sebring. As with any competitive discipline, landing a job with the Big Three or on a major racing team is a matter of showing what you can do under strain. It's not enough to calculate power-to-weight ratios in your head or keep an egg from smashing on the sidewalk using Popsicle sticks. A grad who shows up with a body of practical experience can get in the door, the recruiters say, and one who directs a last-minute comeback in the presence of his future bosses will be gold-plated. Ask management-level engineers working in the automotive field, and chances are they've either hired a Formula SAE alum or are one themselves.