The Fastest Final Exam on Earth

While other college kids study, sleep, and party, disciplined teams of gearhead geniuses-in-training duke it out for trophies-and the chance to build the cars of tomorrow-at the premier university-level car race

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.

The trucks and trailers started arriving on Wednesday, packed with racing hardware, tools, food and people. They streamed onto the proving grounds, past the miles of test roads to a gravel parking lot set aside as the paddock area. Pitcrews spent the rest of the day setting up the cars while team "suits"-those tasked with more businesslike responsibilities-performed dry runs of the next day's oral exams, off by themselves gesturing into the air.

Thursday, the competition's first day, was a blur of PowerPoint slides and interrogative scrutiny during separate design, cost and marketing presentations for a panel of industry pros: Why did your engineers choose this particular suspension geometry? Why a pneumatic shifter instead of a manual one? Think of it as the oral-defense segment of the college gearhead's thesis.

"Our job is to look at the car and make sure it has some engineering elegance and that [the groups] understand the reason for their choices," says Paul Haney, a tire expert and FSAE design judge. "They have to be able to explain why they did what they did. I just keep asking them 'Why?' Eventually they either get down to first principles or they run out of explanation." The latter costs them points.

Today, Friday, is set aside for qualifying events. Failure means teams will be ranked low for Saturday's race and dooms them to a sad weekend of going through the motions with no hope of a medal. With the sun barely up, teams are already scrambling to tune their cars before heading down to the skidpad, acceleration strip and autocross course. How deftly they can cut through tight corners, fire off upshifts, and dodge orange cones will determine their standings for tomorrow's make-or-break endurance run. Today's first test is of decibels (no car can exceed 110), and the preparations are deafening. After a few minutes standing near the University of Manitoba's base camp, I wonder how many more revs it would take for their 600cc motorcycle engine to match the resonant frequency of a human eardrum, splintering mine like a champagne flute. Just as I'm about to scream mercy, the team's leader cuts the engine, and 105.5 decibels dissipate across the flat expanse beyond the paddock. I now understand that the next 48 hours will be bedlam.

Each team's base camp quickly becomes an all-in-one competition headquarters. It's a place to work on the cars, wait, goof around, sleep, offer free mohawks to anyone interested, pin up a life-size poster of David Hasselhoff, or otherwise chill out between events. Drivers retire to base camp for high fives and a shaken can of ginger ale after nailing a top score, or trudge back to be talked down after succumbing to pressure on the skidpad. Some teams assemble ersatz kitchens, with crock pots set up next to giant plastic jars of cheese balls or baskets of apples. Others rely on simple coolers of sandwiches or raid the on-site snack bar when hunger pangs hit. It's typical dorm life, lived in a parking lot.

But by mid-afternoon, the wide concrete field is dotted with 19- and 20-year-olds trying to mask their terror. Rutgers senior and team captain Alton Worthington, for example, is keeping his composure, but only just. Yesterday, instead of donning cap and gown with his fellow Rutgers grads, Worthington spent his last day of college defending the design in front of a panel of judges. Such sacrifices are normal-the Rutgers car has already consumed 3,500 hours of the team's academic career. But now their racer, a photogenic specimen sporting an F1-style wing, might not even reach day two. It's a seized engine, Worthington tells me through clenched teeth, before darting off to borrow a socket wrench from the University of Kansas.

As Worthington plots his team's next move, his competitors-from the University of Arizona, Clemson, the U.S. Naval Academy and 100 other institutions of higher learning from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Finland, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Singapore, South Korea, the U.K. and Venezuela-are coaxing their racers through tech inspection and then out to the tarmac. Though home-brewed, the cars are much more than glorified go-karts. They were born from a sober engineering exercise that simulates a professional assignment, right down to a requisite marketing and cost plan. Even if they're designed and constructed with the youthful abandon of a punk album, they're as rigorously considered, and scrutinized, as a concerto.

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.

"Grades are very important, but they're not everything," says Alba Colon, an FSAE volunteer whose day job is Nascar Nextel Cup program manager with General Motors Racing (in other words, she's got a say in what's going on underneath Jimmie Johnson as he's rounding Talladega at 180 miles an hour). Colon, recruited by GM several years ago as a student and team leader for the University of Puerto Rico, now cruises the event for talent. "[Formula SAE is] one of the few projects where you have the opportunity to apply everything that you've learned," she says. "But at the same time, you develop other skills that pretty much aren't taught in school. How do you react when you have a bad situation? What decisions do you make? It helps us see if this person has what is necessary to work at the company."

It's hard to imagine that the U.S. Air Force Academy, a Christian college and the Venezuelan national university teams have anything in common, but when it comes down to it, the competitors all share an uncommon fellowship.

"Ask me anything about politics you want," offers Carlos Herrera, the affable faculty adviser for Venezuela's UNEXPO technical university. I try to think of a sophisticated political question that draws parallel lines between these student engineers in sharply creased pit-crew shirts and the rift between Venezuela and the U.S. But it doesn't come. I'd much rather talk about the team's approach to aerodynamics-and so, really, would Herrera. Because here, everyone's a citizen of the United States of Autofreak. Just like the guys from, say, the University of Wisconsin-Madison or Austria's Graz University of Technology, they grew up playing with cars, watching racing on TV, and wrenching some clapped-out import they got in exchange for a summer's work. And they're all quick with a spark plug or a USB cable or a box of Shake 'N Bake if anyone needs it. The only thing left or right about what they're doing here relates to the varied geometries of the cars' steering linkages.

Another thing they all have in common is ingenuity, and a superhuman ability to get things done. The team from Cedarville University, a small Baptist college in southwestern Ohio, set out for Romeo in a two-tone 1976 Superior RV, the kind typically found rusting away in someone's backyard. They arrived in five hours, propelled by its original 440-cubic-inch Chrysler V8, restored to working order by team members and faculty adviser Jay Kinsinger. This team is the very picture of skill and optimism. Hitched to the rear is the team's box trailer for its car and mobile repair shop. On its side, "Zeek," as the RV is known, wears a patch of missing paint that looks suspiciously like a thumbs-up sign-a fitting logo for the contagious enthusiasm with which these guys do everything. They give me a tour of their creaky yet retro-chic mobile home. A rolling shrine to the mid-1970s, Zeek has become a makeshift tour bus and conference room, sleeping six amid dark wood and flashy draperies. In the dash is an original eight-track tape player, complete with period-correct tapes Kinsinger bought at a flea market. The road music stocked for this outing includes Cat Stevens's Greatest Hits, Billy Joel's The Stranger_and Styx's _The Grand Illusion.

As of Saturday's endurance/fuel-economy event, it became apparent that a well-funded team from a university with its own particle accelerator had a better shot at glory than did a scratched-together entry from a small college that's strapped for cash (surprise, surprise). Michigan State's green-and-white racer, for instance, had been tearing up the endurance course. But whether here or in the pros, there's no sure thing in racing, and as the finish line drew near, technical gremlins ambushed the car. With 100 meters to go, a puff of smoke and a plume of pumpkin-orange flame shot from the engine, sending ground crews rushing to alert the oblivious driver. The incident knocked MSU out of the running for a top-10 spot (they earned the Hard-Luck Award at the FSAE closing ceremony). Likewise, engine trouble sidelined Helsinki Polytechnic, whose sleek racer-equal parts Indy car and
space pod-was aiming to improve on last year's fifth-place finish.

Then there was tiny, scrappy Cooper Union, a first-time entrant from New York City that barely had a right to be on the tarmac, much less contend for the podium. Hanging around their rented box truck in T-shirts and shorts, the team could have been the scruffy opening act at a community-center battle of the bands. After all, the entire student body of the art, architecture and engineering school is about the size of a single department at a Big Ten competitor.

Cooper Union's team was born just two years ago with an engine that the founding members bought on eBay with their own money. The team set their sights on the FSAE cup during the second semester of this year, with a promising design and a core group of irredeemable pistonheads but few resources and no facilities suitable for fabricating a car-in the end, they sneaked their work in and out of a school lab.

Team members worked like mad through the spring semester, sleeping in their makeshift shop some nights, before rolling out their creation a month before the Michigan event. The past few weeks, team leader Peter Andruskiewicz told me, had been a blur of sleepless nights.

The car had to drop out of the skid pad and acceleration events early on, and Cooper was the last team to finish the endurance run. Yet they finished. Their racer wasn't pretty-a mishmash of metallic shards and duct tape-but it had the goods. It endured the entire 13.67 miles (take that, MSU) and walked away with a total of 183 points out of a possible 1,000 overall: an 89th-place finish for the weekend. Frankly, it was a miracle. "We're going for a reliable car the first year," Andruskiewicz said proudly. "Next year we'll go for speed."

And Rutgers? In the end, they overcame the oil leak plaguing their Yamaha powerplant. With minutes to go, the team passed the visual tech inspection and headed out to the tarmac. At a full run, they shoved the car along using an FSAE-standard, removable T-shaped bar down the long service road that led from the paddock. At the fueling station, the car aced the tilt-table test-a check for gas leaks-as the teammates bounced on their heels impatiently. Then they stopped by the noise station, where officials determined their engine to be below the 110-decibel threshold. Check. But at the braking test, where drivers must lock up all four wheels on cue, Rutgers was dealt a knockout blow. After growing frustrated with the driver's inability to stop in a prescribed spot, Worthington pulled him from the car, climbed in, and tried it himself. On the final run, he stamped the pedal with the accrued force of a weekend's exasperations, and the assembly bent under the weight. "I thought it was a driver problem," he said weakly, as he rose from the car.

Afterward, as other teams found ways of unwinding from the tension-Auburn throwing teammates into a murky pond, Michigan State bickering while wheeling its slightly charred racer to its trailer-Worthington looked around at his Rutgers teammates, gathered up his dignity, and found a silver lining. "The new members on the team stepped up when things were getting tough," he said. Faces brightened. "They learned that racing is hard and you need a lot of focus. I was a little worried about the team's future, about who was going to take over a leadership position. But it was good to see there were people who were willing to take up the slack."

Things wrapped up quickly after the endurance event, and in the end, the podium finishers spanned the globe. The well-oiled, well-financed Wisconsin-Madison team took home the Formula SAE trophy, with the University of Western Australia in second place. No one seemed resentful of the victors.

I took a last walk around the paddock as the stragglers packed up their things. The PA system crackled, and the announcer, a little hoarse now, cleared his throat for a final announcement to the esteemed students who will someday form the backbone of the automotive industry: that the Rochester Institute of Technology will be gathering in the parking lot of the Big Buck restaurant in Auburn Hills. Everyone's invited.

To see more images of the 2007 Formula SAE, launch the slideshow here.

Mike Spinelli is the editor of the car-culture blog jalopnik.com

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Even the biggest, best-funded engineering departments fall prey to mishaps on race day. Michigan State, the envy of teams who had traveled from all over the globe to its car-crazy state, was favored to win until its racer caught fire only 100 meters from the finish line.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Ohio's plucky Cedarville University was among the contenders.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Rutgers struggles mightily to repair a crack in its backup powerplant before swapping it into their 599cc racer a few minutes before race time.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Before any car can hit the track, it's tested against a long list of requirements. For one, the engine can't emit more than 110 decibels at full rev.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

As was the U.S. Air Force Academy.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

LeTourneau University, from Longview, Texas, placed 69th.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Any loose ends left during the rush to complete the cars will conspire to become catastrophic malfunctions on the enduro course.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Only once the open-cockpit racers have passed rigorous inspection are they allowed to endure a torturous series of motion tests: acceleration, braking and, finally, a 14-mile endurance/fuel-economy trial. It's this final, white-knuckle run that kills off inferior work.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

The well-oiled, well-financed Wisconsin-Madison team took home the trophy.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

The ability to work under pressure is what gets a team to the finish line--and earns the attention of potential employers at major automakers.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Additional images from the 2007 Formula SAEJohn B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Austria's Graz University of Technology, cruising through the endurance event, had to haul its driver out to rebuild a failing engine.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

More than 100 teams from schools around the world entered this year's FSAE cup.John B. Carnett