College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Iowa State formula racers think engine problems are finally behind them

Formula SAE Team
Formula SAE Team
The student-engineers of Iowa State’s Formula SAE Team think they finally have a reliable engine. Photo by Iowa State Formula SAE.

5-28-13 update: It’s never ideal to finish a racing car after unloading at competition. And so the Formula North contest in Canada was an up-and-down event for Iowa State’s Formula SAE Team. The team finished mid-pack in the short and twisty autocross event. But delays in passing technical inspection cost the team the chance to compete in the acceleration and skidpad events. The team made the quick group in the endurance race and made a few laps. But a cable broke and the driver couldn’t shift gears. Then the engine began showing signs of trouble. And so the team made it to the driver change halfway through the race and decided to park the car rather than risk engine damage. “It’s disappointing,” said Derek Peters, the team’s technical director. “If we had finished the car a few days sooner, we might have been able to do better.” The team will get a chance for better results June 19-22 at the Formula SAE Lincoln competition in Nebraska.

Iowa State’s Formula SAE racing team has been fighting engine problems the past few summers.

Three years ago, the team’s mini open-wheel racer was stopped by cracked welds that flooded the fuel mixture with air and killed the engine. Two years ago, the team fell behind schedule and never turned a wheel on track. And last year, the team finally solved nagging engine problems when an oil leak put the brakes on competition.

This year’s student-engineers have learned some lessons from those lean years: They’ll run a stock, single-cylinder Yamaha engine for an all-terrain vehicle. It’s an engine that has an integrated oil tank that’s not likely to leak. It’s more suited to the technical, turn-filled courses featured in recent competitions. It’s also simple and reliable.

Teams are allowed to modify their engines to boost performance and recent Iowa State teams made big modifications. But those changes made the engines a lot harder to start and keep running.

“Now, it turns over without effort,” said T.J. Beavers, a senior in mechanical engineering from Dallas who’s the team’s power train systems director. “As soon as we got it, we had it running.”

And so, even though they’re busy with final assembly, students are feeling much better about this summer’s competitions – Formula North May 23-26 in Barrie, Ontario, Canada; and Formula SAE Lincoln June 19-22 in Lincoln, Neb. The second contest is sponsored by SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Derek Peters, a junior mechanical engineering major from Hartley who’s also the team’s technical director, said the new engine philosophy isn’t the only thing to like about the team’s latest racing car.

He said he likes the wider cockpit, the roomier engine bay and the new locations for shock attachments – all changes that make it much easier to run, fix and operate the car.

“I like the driver space,” he said. “We’ve opened up the chassis and made it more comfortable for the driver. We hope that means driving faster.”

Team members think all the changes will boost performance and reliability enough for their car to race in the middle of the pack this summer. They say that would be a big step toward even higher places next year.

“I like the simplicity,” Beavers said. “Last year the car got complicated and we changed too many things at one time. There was a lot of room for error.”