Yesterday I received a tweet from a member of the Cooper Union Motorsports team seeking sponsorship for an SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Student Competition. The timing was uncanny as I literally just found the slides that I developed back in 1994 for my Senior Project presentation for the very first ever Cooper Union entry into an SAE competition, the 1994 SAE Mini Baja East competition in Mont Saint Saveur, Quebec, Canada from May 27-29. I also just purchased a slide-scanning machine, so I can recount and share some of the pictures from that amazing experience which set the stage for my future career in automotive design. (Long post ahead).
It all began with a dream and a failure, the trust of a Dean, the abandonment of classmates, and the help of friends and family. More than a decade and a half later, it continues with a fully-fledged program at my Alma mater.
Let’s start with the dream and the failure. While my Mini Baja entry in 1994 was the first vehicle entry ever by a student from the Cooper Union for the SAE Collegiate Design Series, it was not the first attempt. That would be credited to a group of seniors in the class of 1993. I attended a senior project and/or SAE presentation from these seniors, who described the SAE Mini Baja and the competition which was to be held in Orlando, Florida. I was inspired! I decided right then and there that this would also be my senior project the following year, not only because the thought of building an all-terrain, amphibious vehicle was captivating, but also because it would result in a paid trip to Florida (which at that time I had never seen). My dream was firmly established. Unfortunately for Cooper Union, those particular seniors never got passed the procurement and preliminary design phase. They ordered a bunch of parts, even purchased a Cushman 3-wheel traffic police vehicle, started on an aluminum frame design, and ended it with a partially constructed skeleton which was extremely fragile. A colossal failure to say the least.
This is where the trust of a Dean comes in. The failure of my predecessors made it a challenge for me to get this program approved as my senior project. The first thing I needed to do was to secure funding. I knew that the team from the previous year had received funding from the Dean of the Engineering School. I estimated that I would need about $2,000 for the entire project. I put a full proposal together and proposed the program to my Senior Thesis Advisor, Professor Wei. With his approval, I set up some time with Dean Eleanor Baum of the Engineering School to present to her my proposal. In the middle of my presentation, she stopped me. She said she had received a similar pitch the prior year by senior students and nothing came of it, so she had only one question for me… Can I do it? I looked at her and responded, “Yes, I can do this”. That was it. She approved my $2,000 budget. She took me at my word and I didn’t even have to finish the presentation.
Enthused, my next step was to recruit some classmates for this project. My first choice was my best friend at Cooper, George T. As a senior, I took over as President of the SAE Cooper Union Student Chapter, so as one of the first meetings, I presented this as a senior project and recruited two more students to be part of the team, R.R. and S.S. (their real initials, but I won’t use their full names). Unfortunately, over the course of the year, they dropped off of the team without making any contributions. Even George had to relegate himself to small contributions as the academic work in our senior year was excruciating and he was struggling. Of course, I had the same workload, but I was the one who gave Dean Baum my word that I could pull this off, so I ended up working unbelievable hours to complete the design and construction phases (as noted from the construction pictures, I’m the only one in any of them). This is where my family and friends stepped in. My father, Vidal Velazquez Sr., my brother, Jiovanie Velazquez, and my friend, Abdel Jerez essentially took over the roles of my teammates, and with their help, we were able to complete construction of the vehicle in team for the competition in Quebec (which, by the way, I was pretty disappointed to find out that I’d be traveling to Canada instead of Florida for the 1994 competition).
But, that’s jumping ahead. I first went about designing the vehicle using the CAD (Computer Aided Design) package available at Cooper at the time. I designed the entire frame of the vehicle, as well as the dual A-arm front suspension system. For timing and simplicity, I used a solid rear axle design with no rear suspension (the rear tires had enough give to absorb a lot of the shocks encountered at the event). Additionally, while it was not the most innovative design in the world, I felt this would be a structurally strong design with minimum construction time. Much of the design was informed by the requirements of the competition, which provided minimum requirements for safety, such as the height of the rollcage, the height of the side impact protection, the size of the Briggs and Stratton 8HP engine, etc. I will admit one flaw in my design was the oversized rollcage height, which was a result of erroneously measuring the minimum rollcage height from the top of the side impact beam instead of the base of the seat. But, better more height than less, so I kept the taller design.
George and I then used the ADAMS (Advanced Dynamic Analysis of Mechanical Systems) software in Professor Wei’s robotics lab to simulate the conditions that would be encountered in the race. The entire first semester was devoted to the design and analysis of the vehicle, and the completion of the design report for the competition. With that completed in the first semester, the second semester was devoted to the construction of the vehicle. At this point, I had to take stock of all of the equipment left over from the 1993 attempt and see what I could salvage given my small budget. I had the Briggs and Stratton 8HP engine, which had never come out of its box. I had rear wheels and front wheels (the front wheels were lawnmower wheels and not ideally suited for the clearances I would need, but I didn’t have the budget to get better wheels, so I worked with them. I also had some additional components such as a steering wheel, brake cylinders and tie rods. I had a lot of the safety equipment that were competition requirements, such as the fire extinguisher, orange flag, helmet, gloves, five-point safety harness, and life vest. A full list of the recycled parts can be seen to the right in the slide taken from my senior project presentation. A life vest is required due to the unique nature of the SAE Mini Baja East competition. The vehicles had to be designed to float as part of the obstacle course was to navigate through a deep lake. I went with a flotation foam design under the entire vehicle and with wings to achieve flotation (the blue flotation billet in the picture above). In retrospect, had I a better understanding of everything that I would need for the competition and what had already been purchased, I would have requested significantly more money. I had to make some serious design concessions to stay within budget, but that was a good lesson for my future career.
These parts were stored in an abandoned gas station that the Cooper Union happened to own at the time. I had hoped to use that gas station as my workshop, but unfortunately, the Cooper Union was about to sell that property, so I had to get all of the equipment out. I found a small room in the basement of the Hewitt Building (which no longer exists), near the makeshift workout room. I began ordering parts and equipment, starting with the square and round stock steel tubes (high strength yet light steel) that were part of my design. I was able to use the Sculpture Shop in the School of Architecture to construct the main frame. The rollcage was round steel tubes that I bent into the required shape. The main body of the vehicle was constructed from square steel stock for ease of construction and assembly. I used the mig welder, also in the Sculpture Shop, to complete the vehicle frame. While the Sculpture Shop was a great resource, there were too many demands from other students on this, so I had to buy a separate mig welder to make sure I was able to complete this project on time. I stored this in the Hewitt building and worked out of the basement for a while, mainly to construct the smaller components.
I also put our Machine Shop in the engineering building to good use, mainly for the precision drilling and cutting of components needed for the front dual A-arm suspension. For these I used a heavier gauge steel and custom designed the bushings from the same stock. As part of my senior design presentation, I added a bit of humor by showing me supposedly bending the A-arms into their proper shape with my bare hands. Even more humorous by today’s standards would be the Motorola beeper on my belt 🙂
By the end of the semester, I had completed the majority of the work on the vehicle. The frame and suspension system was completely constructed and assembled, I could get all four tires on and have a seat in the vehicle. However, there was still a lot of work to be done. The slide at right shows what was left to complete after my final presentation for my Senior Design Project and during graduation. When school was closed, I had to get what was remaining of the car to my house in Brooklyn for final completion before the competition in Montreal. To get the vehicle home, I mounted the fixed rear axle, attached the rear tires, and hooked the Mini Baja vehicle to the back of my car and towed it all the way to Brooklyn from Cooper Union. My father had to rewire the house to get the appropriate current for the mig welder to complete the rest of the work. My brother Jiovanie and friend Abdel also stepped up their help at this stage to get the vehicle completed in time.
Progress was rapid over the next few days with their help. We finally got the engine mounted and hooked up and were ready for a test drive. We had a bit of trouble figuring out the operation of the engine. Abdel volunteered to be the first to test drive the car, but it would just putter and die. All of a sudden, out of the blue, it just kicked in and took off down a street in Brooklyn. Jiovanie and I ran after it because we hadn’t installed the brakes at that point. Abby had a thrilling first ride in the car and let up enough on the gas for us to catch up and bring it to a halt before he reached the intersection. Tragedy averted.
At this stage I still had not built the propulsion system for when the vehicle was in deep water. I ended up buying a propeller with a fixed drive shaft that I then coupled to the rear fixed axle. One of the many things we didn’t get to do before leaving for the event in Mont Saint Saveur, Montreal, was to test the vehicle in water. There are not that many places in New York City where you can drive a vehicle into and out of the water. I would just have to rely on my calculations and MacGyver style design implementation during the event. One thing I didn’t realize was the the exposed propeller, by the rules, needed to be covered for protection. During the event, Jiovanie fashioned a safety cage out of chicken wire so that we could pass inspection and compete in the event. It worked perfectly.
I recently found the pictures of the actual event, so I started a separate post to describe the details when we got to the competition. That blog entry can be found at https://richardvelazquez.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/1994-sae-mini-baja-east-in-quebec-canada/
The history of the SAE Mini Baja East series is recounted in full at SAE’s website: http://www.sae.org/students/mbehistory.pdf