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Bold Design Changes Drive Baja Team to the Top

The U-M Baja Racing team finished the 2015 season on top, ranking first in the nation and winning the Mike Schmidt Memorial Iron Team Award. The annual award is given to the team earning the most points in competition.

At the season's three competitions in Alabama, Maryland and Oregon, U-M Baja finished first, second and first, respectively. It also progressed to the Design Finals event at all three competitions, a first in the team's history.

"Some of the design changes we made were risky," said Justin Lopas, 2016 team captain and a senior in the ME department. "We took second place overall the prior year, and for everyone on the team, it was hard to say, 'Okay, we need to make radical changes.'"

But the spirit of innovation and an aversion to complacency inspired design improvements. Chief among them, the team developed a new axially-stressed drive shaft, which eliminated a lower camber link and instead uses the drive shaft as the suspension link.

"What was key about the design was its simplicity," said Lopas, "but there were a lot of engineering considerations and analysis that went into it. In the end it really helped with endurance and overall vehicle reliability."

A second major design change was the development of custom brake calipers, which also required much engineering design and analysis work in addition to manufacturing and testing.

"Design percolates through the rest of the competition," said Lopas, and the changes certainly paid off in performance.

Now Lopas and the rest of the team are looking forward to the coming season. A focus for the team's current leadership is sustainability and knowledge transfer. When there's an important meeting, discussion or event to attend, at least one senior, junior and sophomore all will participate.

"We want newer members to feel involved and also possess that institutional team knowledge they can call upon when they become juniors and seniors," Lopas said.

Thinking about the car the 2015-16 team will build, Lopas wants to see the team continue to push the boundary of what is possible in the Baja series.

“More detailed design and analysis, an increased focus on static events and a continuation of the expansion of the size of our team and sponsor community will be keys to our success,” Lopas said. And since experienced driver Brandon Amat (BSE ME '14, MSE ME '15) graduated, "we want to make sure we allow for a lot of driver training and practice to fill that newfound void," he said.

Last but not least, when it comes to competition, "Next year, we want to win all three competitions," Lopas said, "and given our performance last year, we definitely believe that's possible."

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