Racing to the Top - From an NJIT Lab to the California Desert

By Moshe Kam, dean of the Newark College of Engineering

In late 2014, a group of students decided that it was time for NJIT to re-enter the SAE Baja competition, a celebrated international contest putting student-built, off-road sporting vehicles to the test on challenging courses around the country. Under the leadership of David Bak '15 and Matthew Emmerson '17, these enterprising car enthusiasts gave themselves a crash course on the rules of the competition and the basics of vehicle design and implementation. The team included students with different skill sets, backgrounds and a broad array of academic interests, including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, and information technology.

In early strategy sessions, the students quickly determined that while all competing cars must use the same 10-horsepower Briggs and Stratton single-cylinder gas engine, there was plenty of room for innovation in key areas, including the vehicle’s suspension, drivetrain, steering and ergonomics. Accordingly, the team divided itself into smaller design groups to optimize performance in each one of these categories. They consulted textbooks, articles, websites, friendly professors, NJIT alumni and local mechanics. They planned and conducted calculations, estimations, simulations and prototype testing.

Lessons Learned on the Road

The emerging Highlander Racing team entered its newly-built off-road vehicle, weighing 730 lbs., into the first international contest of the 2015 season, held at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Md. Despite the team’s limited experience and the car’s weight, which was substantially more than planned, the NJIT race car survived the grueling rock- and gully-filled track. Though the team didn’t rank very high in that first competition (75th out of about 100 contestants) the Highlanders learned on-the-ground lessons that they skillfully applied to subsequent competitions and design models.

This past weekend – three years, six competitions and more than 20,000 cross-country miles later – the recently unveiled 2017 model was driven from Newark, N.J. to Gorman, Calif. It made NJIT history there by winning the match’s most challenging event – the four-hour Endurance Race – propelling the university into the top rank of Baja design teams. The NJIT car had undergone a remarkable transformation since its first 730 lb. "hunk of metal" incarnation. It shed 400 lbs., acquired slick new electronics, achieved an optimal power-to-weight ratio, and ultimately boasted, as the team put it, “as much innovation as you can bring to the design, working within strict competition rules.” As of this week, the surging Highlanders are ranked 13th overall in the world. For their victory in the Endurance Race event, they brought home a cash prize sponsored by Honda and the admiration of more than 90 competing teams from the United States, Canada, India, China and South Korea.

The Baja car after the race

NJIT’s growing strategic and operational prowess stems from a winning combination: the team’s improved technical skills, diligence, and laser-like focus, as well as increased investment and better infrastructure for design and construction. David Jackiewicz ’17, the team’s project manager, attributes much of NJIT's success to "learning from experience.”

“We reviewed in detail each and every aspect of our past performance, and compared what we had done to what we had observed in our competitors, good and bad.  Even when we had a setback (for example, the 2016 car lost its entire belly pan climbing a boulder in its first major race) we were not deterred,” he notes. “We used every mishap and hindrance to improve the next design."

The leadership of the Newark College of Engineering (NCE) was inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of the team and therefore made the decision to consolidate the college's multiple vehicle-building efforts into one central project, the SAE Baja car. Instead of working on half a dozen different competitions, we agreed to assemble and support one strong cohesive team, and provide that team with the necessary resources – money, space, tools, training, supervision and fabrication services. Buoyed by investments by NCE and a host of local and national sponsors, the team moved its operation in 2016 from a private off-campus garage into a newly designed and fully-equipped specialized lab inside NJIT’s Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department.  

New Kid at the New York Auto Show

To cap off last year’s exhilarating season, in which the team’s ranking jumped more than 25 spots, the team was invited this April to show the Baja car at the 2017 New York International Auto Show, alongside the latest in “cutting-edge design and extraordinary innovation,”  including sleek new Ferraris, Porsches, Lamborghinis and the supercharged Dodge Demon.

The team was stunned when Emmerson, who applied online to show the Baja car in the “exotic” car section, informed his teammates that that the show’s coordinators not only replied favorably, but also offered to sponsor the team. “It seemed like a pipe dream to get into the show. These are the biggest and best automakers in the world and a lot of us aspire to work for them,” Jackiewicz says. “While they’re focused on luxury and comfort, we’re the opposite – rugged and outdoorsy. But we share similar values, including incredible pride in our work.”

Desert Dreamin’

Later that same week on campus, Highlander Racing unveiled the 2017 Baja Car. It had a significantly upgraded electronics system, a custom gearbox designed in-house, a hammock seat for increased comfort, and a much lower weight – 340 lbs.

NJIT Baja team

“We will definitely have the ‘wow’ factor this time,” Jackiewicz observed on the eve of the event. “We have a very competitive design, with improvements and modifications across the board. The bottom line is that we are 15 mph faster.  I know we’re going to race really fast.”

Emmerson, who drove the 2017 car in the competition, recalls the thrill of lapping some of the fastest cars that day, and the strong sense of achievement and progress since the first model he drove in an SAE Baja competition.

"Many school teams still remembered us as the novice team with the 700-pound car,” Emmerson notes, “and now they saw us emerging with this slick and elegant light design. They were seriously impressed with our growth through the last few years. When we won, we heard the roaring applause of many teams that had followed our progress.”