Blood, sweat, and gears: Students build and race cars in ODU’s motorsports club

Old Dominion University’s three-week winter break is a time for many students to travel, spend time with family, and recharge after finals. But for a group of dedicated gear heads, it’s a chance to get in about 100 hours covered in sweat and grease in their lab, a mini-garage in one of ODU’s engineering buildings.

There’s much to be done before ODU’s Monarch Racing club heads to competition in May. In their lab, two competition vehicles — a mini-Formula 1-style racer and a bulkier Baja for all-terrain racing — sit stripped down to their steel frames and bare parts. These vehicles represent the collective knowledge attained by students through years of trial and error.

The club, founded in the 1980s, is open to any experience level and major. It’s not a place for experts, it’s a place for students to fail over and over again until they become experts — or at least set themselves apart from their peers in the process.

“My favorite part about this is it’s an opportunity to fail scot-free — not scot-free but a fairly low cost of failure, and failure is the key to learning,” said junior Scott Thornton, who spent 10 years as a master technician for Toyota before enrolling at ODU. “We have failed a lot and we have learned a lot. Had I not been in this organization, even with 10 years in automotive, I still wouldn’t have learned the lessons I’ve learned today.”

This past May was the first competition for Monarch Racing since the pandemic, and the club only had a few months to prepare. The team finished a disappointing 21st out of about 120. This time around, club members are looking to return to form.

The competition, organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers International, challenges students in a number of ways. They are judged not only for the design and performance of their vehicles, but also on the value they get for their money. In their business presentation, students play the role of a car company representative pitching a product in a Shark Tank-style setting, which involves outlining the manufacturing and distribution processes, down to projecting their profit margins and future funding.

“Some of the teams that have higher budgets do worst on the cost report because they just throw money at the problem,” said senior Bryce Thacker, the club’s lead designer who focuses on the Formula competition.

The vehicles have to be designed and built in the fall and tested in the spring to be ready for competition. The Baja team can reuse their vehicle once, but the Formula team has to build a new one every year, and only a few parts can be transferred from one build to the next, Thacker said.

The Monarchs have a bit of a reputation to uphold in the SAE. Four ODU students were offered jobs on the spot during their business presentation in 2019 because the judges were so impressed, according to Orlando Ayala, the club’s faculty advisor and a mechanical engineering professor at ODU. But the students couldn’t take the jobs because they were only sophomores or juniors.

Several graduates from that group now work for General Motors and Honda, according to senior Mason Zahn.

On top of preparing for competition, the students have to raise much of their own money to cover parts (they pick out and buy their own engines) and entry costs. The university provides a set amount of funding each year — about $20,000 for 2022. But the team raises the rest — they are aiming for $40,000 in 2023 — by soliciting donations and working out deals with businesses for discounts on parts in exchange for promotional decals on the final product.

“Engineering is a profession of practice so it’s really important in the preparation of future engineers to not only be in the class and learn from the classroom environment ... it’s to get the hands on, get the hands dirty, through experiential opportunities like this,” said Ken Fridley, dean of the Batten College of Engineering and Technology at ODU.

Of course, in the competition itself, someone has to drive. For the Formula competition, that means figuring out who has the endurance and courage to drive at high speed, low to the ground, with no power steering for 20 minutes straight. The endurance race for Baja is two, two-hour races, with only two yoga mats between the driver and the carbon fiber seat. The club takes the position that race car drivers are, indeed, athletes.

The Formula team practices in a parking lot across the street from the Monarch’s football stadium. They set up a winding track with cones and burn rubber until they run out of daylight. One of their training vehicles for new drivers is a tough, bulky stock car the club has had since the early 2000s. It’s an example of how long a car can last if you have enough technical expertise — and duct tape.

“It runs, and we have yet to kill it surprisingly,” said sophomore Nathan Wright, the club’s lead machinist.

These real world training sessions are also a chance to find out the vehicle’s weaknesses ahead of the competitions.

“It’s going to break, let’s go ahead and break it now,” said Zahn, describing the team’s mentality.

They also learn from past competitions. One year, the Baja got bogged down in a water puddle because its airbox was exposed, causing it to suck in water and stop the engine. Other teams who designed a “snorkel” extending higher along the side of the vehicle didn’t have that problem.

Students who join the racing club run the gamut in experience working on cars. Thacker, whose engineering concentration is power systems (specifically helicopter engines) and who works in jet propulsion, joined the club with zero knowledge about cars, which was a shock to his teammates. But he saw a potential application for his interests and went for it.

“I was interested in doing something more involved in engineering ... I wanted to try to apply my skills, learn more from the club, and then from there it was just ‘downhill’ I guess,” Thacker said.

On the other end of the spectrum is Zahn, the communications lead for the team who works on the Baja, who said, “I’ve been driving since I was able to walk.”

“Since I’ve had my license, I’ve gone through about 10 vehicles,” Zahn said, describing the common practice among club members of buying cars primarily to learn how they were made. “I usually will buy a car that’s kind of dilapidated, get it back to where it needs to be and then sell it. Usually I don’t have a vehicle longer than an inspection.”

“We never buy a car and just drive it,” added Thornton.

The lab often becomes a informal study hall with so many engineers in the same room. They break out the white board on a daily basis to settle disputes or solve a difficult problem, whether it be related to work on their vehicles or calculus homework.

“When somebody says, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this’ or ‘This doesn’t make any sense,’ 90% of the room gets up and goes, ‘What are we talking about?’” Thornton said.

As he prepares to graduate this year, Thacker has seen the “stark difference” between the experience he and fellow club members have compared to other students headed into the workforce.

“The amount of things we’ve become accustomed to, dealing with parts, parts specifications, manufacturing, how to build a part ... all of those things are real world applications that we’re able to learn in this lab rather than being in a classroom,” he said.

Gavin Stone, 757-712-4806, gavin.stone@virginiamedia.com