CORVALLIS - Long hours and late nights spent in a university lab paid off for engineering students from Oregon State University, who designed and built two mini-Baja race cars that placed first and third overall in the Society of Automotive Engineers Mini-Baja West Competition in Portland.

The OSU team competed against more than 90 teams from other engineering schools from as far away as Florida and Mexico during the recent competition.

"This definitely shows that OSU's hands-on approach to engineering education works and works well," said Belinda King, head of the OSU Department of Mechanical Engineering. "There is no better way to learn than by doing, and when your hard work pays off against tough international competition, the thrill of victory for these students is very sweet indeed. We're very proud of them."

King said that winning both first and third place honors is an unprecedented accomplishment for the OSU engineering program. The students competed with teams from some of the best engineering programs in the country on a grueling course that included crawling over huge boulders and logs, as well as a four-hour endurance leg.

Many of the other cars experienced technical problems and could not complete the race.

The interdisciplinary OSU team, coached by mechanical engineering professor Bob Paasch, designed, modeled, tested and built both cars during the past year. They used a computer-aided design system to model the designs, a computer-based stress analysis system and extensive physical testing. This resulted in a computer-optimized suspension system with 15 inches of travel and a electronic traction control system designed for the track's challenging conditions.

"During the endurance race, the ruggedness of our students' design was proven when one of our cars rolled four times after a high-speed accident," Paasch said. "But it landed on its wheels and was able to continue and finish the race."

In addition to the mechanical, electronic and manufacturing engineering technologies that the students had to master, they also gained other invaluable skills.

"This project gives students real-world experience in areas like interdisciplinary project management and teamwork, which engineers need to be good at," King said.

The mini-Baja cars are single-seat recreational vehicles that the average consumer can take off-road. All teams use the same 10 horsepower engine and adhere to strict design rules, mostly for safety reasons.

Recruiters from sponsors including Honda, Polaris and Portland-based Freightliner Corp. were on hand during event to talk to students.

It costs about $10,000 to design and build a car, and the students raise most of that money by locating sponsors. The OSU team will take the first-place car to Madison, Wis., in early June for the next competition.

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Belinda King, 541-737-3441