Snakes, lizards, bogs challenge TTU students in '96 Mini-Baja East

Competitions for engineering students are not meant to be easy, and the annual Mini-Baja competitions sponsored by Briggs and Stratton and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) are no exception.

In their latest adventure on the Mini-Baja circuit, which challenges students to design, build and race all-terrain vehicles using a stock 8 horsepower engines, the type found in tillers and riding lawnmowers, Tennessee Technological University's Mini-Baja team encountered the usual obstacles: among them bone-shaking bumps, sticky mudholes and devious tests meant to defeat their car's ability to perform ... and survive.

But at 1996 Mini-Baja East, held May 2-4, in Orlando, Fla., the students also encountered a few twists of nature that kept them on their toes -- namely woods filled with lizards, snakes and other slithery critters, bogs filled with murky, smelly water and sand dunes the height of two-story buildings. There was also the matter of a tree that driver Zachary Kitts managed to strike head on, but apart from chipping some paint, Kitts, the vehicle and the many welds that Kitts himself had done on the frame survived intact. Despite these and other obstacles, Tennessee Tech went on to claim victory in the event, chalking up its seventh top finish in Mini-Baja since 1977.

The three-day event featured a field of 32 vehicles from universities across the eastern United States and Canada, with competitors ranging from the U.S. Military Academy to Michigan State, Carnegie-Mellon and Bucknell.

Tennessee Tech's team did well the first two days of the event, finishing first in speed and suspension, and claiming near-top honors in other static and dynamic events, including land and water maneuverability and mud bog tests. But the team ran into trouble in the crowning event: the endurance race.

The event took cars through woods, up and down sand hills and through deep water. It was the latter that proved to be Tennessee Tech's undoing, with water shooting up the car's air intake stalling the engine. The problem was a surprise because the car had done well in early tests, including trials in Cookeville Lake. But three times, driver Devon Parker had to clamber out into the smelly, dark water and swim the car to the shore. By the time the students had diagnosed and corrected the problem, they lost their early lead and ended up sixth in the event.

Although more than half the field failed to finish at all -- many suffering broken drive trains -- the low finish meant Tennessee Tech lost important points, jeopardizing their overall standings and leaving the students holding their breath at the awards banquet as final results were announced.

"When they didn't announce us in third or second, we figured we must be fourth," said Parker, who captained the team. "When they announced Tennessee Tech was first overall, we must have raised the roof by two feet. We went crazy."

As top finisher, Tennessee Tech becomes the team whose car will be showcased next fall in Detroit at the SAE's national truck and bus convention. General Motors will ship the car and display it to illustrate what can result when young engineers are teamed with a standard 8 horsepower Briggs and Stratton engine. The show will means serious attention for TTU's team and for the team's sponsors, whose names blaze across the car's deep red frame.

But before that happens, the team will have one more chance to test their new car. Later this month, the students will travel to Milwaukee, Wis., for 1996 Mini-Baja Midwest. They finished first there in 1994 but last year chose to compete only in the east event, in which they finished second. This is the first year they've headed into the midwest event with a first place win already under their belts.

To date, Tennessee Tech's string of victories includes seven first place wins, five seconds, four thirds and two fourth place finishes. Fourteen of those top finishes have been in the eastern race.

While Tennessee Tech students design, build and race their cars, they receive important guidance from mentors Bob Smoak, professor of mechanical engineering, and David Walker, technician for mechanical engineering. They, along with Smoak's wife, Julia, travel with students to the competitions.

"It's just technology transfer from one year to the next," says Parker, a member of the team for three years. "We know what to do and what not to do, and that plays a role. Our teamwork is excellent."

The annual events, which include competitions in the east, midwest and west, aim to challenge young engineers with a fun and practical project while helping them to develop important team skills. Several area businesses are important partners in the effort. Sponsors of Tennessee Tech's team include Bennett Industries, Cookie Town Rod & Kustom, Crown Window, Fleetguard, Industrial Tool & Die, Mallory Controls of Sparta, Suzuki of Cookeville and Triangle Plastics.