CORVALLIS, Ore.  After nearly a year of planning, working weekends, test driving and shoveling bucketfuls of mud from their off-road vehicles, a team of Oregon State University students took first and third places at last week’s Baja SAE competition in Washougal, Wash., in cars they designed and built.

OSU’s No. 2 car beat out more than 65 other vehicles – some from as far away as Korea, India and South Africa – to take the top spot. Tough competition also came from universities throughout North America, including University of Michigan, Cornell and the Ecole Polytechnique De Montreal.

“The students are really what make the team,” said Robert Paasch, a mechanical engineering professor and the OSU team’s faculty adviser. “There’s a team spirit, and it’s the Oregon spirit of getting things done, being nice to each other and collaborating.

“There was so much energy and excitement,” Paasch added. “It’s like the (OSU) baseball team winning the national championship.”

The Baja SAE competition series is sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers. The idea is for undergraduates to create a prototype of a single-seat, off-road vehicle that can survive tough terrain. Teams must be able to show how they would design, test, promote, race and find support for their vehicles in a “real-world” scenario, and are judged by a fictitious engineering firm.

Sixteen team members from Oregon State traveled to Washougal, bringing two cars with them. While preparing for competition, the students work together on both cars, but once they arrive at the competition they are divided into two teams. The winning car was the result of several students’ senior design project, while the No. 5 car, which placed third, was teamed mostly by underclassmen.

“We’re trying to cultivate these underclassmen, to bring up knowledgeable Baja members,” said team captain John Fellows. “It sets OSU apart from other teams. We try to get a huge underclassmen support system for these cars. The majority of our members are mechanical engineers, but we also have some from industrial engineering, and some marketing and business majors on our team.”

A passionate, well-organized team wasn’t the only thing that set OSU apart from the competition this year. OSU’s No. 2 team completely redesigned their power train to include two forward gears and a geared reverse, rather than their typical single-forward gear with a neutral and chain-driven reverse.

“It made us so fast in the endurance race that I was afraid we’d be called out for cheating,” said Fellows. “It was really impressive.”

The prototype cars, all powered by the same 10-horsepower Intek Model 20 engines donated by Briggs and Stratton Corporation, are judged on speed, traction, maneuverability and durability in dynamic events such as an acceleration run, a steep hill climb, a maneuverability course, a rock crawl over boulders and a four-hour endurance race. Static events include making a sales presentation, and submitting designs and cost reports to a team of judges.

“It’s a huge advantage to be in the Pacific Northwest,” Fellows said. “We have so many options for terrain to test on. We’ll go out to the dunes. We’ll go to central Oregon and drive in the high desert, or to Philomath, where there’s mud and bogs.”

Twelve of the team members will head to Burlington, Wis., June 11-14, for the next competition in the Baja SAE series, which OSU’s team won in 2006.

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Bob Paasch: 541-737-7019