The secret of the Baja

In the first of six features, the Journal learns about the mysterious Baja racing team

The Queen’s Baja team fills flower pots with the amount of dirt they clean off their annually-built car after competition, said project manager and driver Dave Adams (above). Their next competition takes place in April in South Carolina.
The Queen’s Baja team fills flower pots with the amount of dirt they clean off their annually-built car after competition, said project manager and driver Dave Adams (above). Their next competition takes place in April in South Carolina.
Photo: 
From the left, Brett Goemans, Dave Adams, Parthiv Amin and Simon Winter make up half of the eight-man Baja Team at Queen’s.
From the left, Brett Goemans, Dave Adams, Parthiv Amin and Simon Winter make up half of the eight-man Baja Team at Queen’s.
Photo: 

Avoiding cow excrement isn’t on the agenda of the typical university athlete.

I certainly wasn’t thinking much about it before I spent the day with the Queen’s Baja racing team, and I ruined a pair of shorts as a result.

The only constructive criticism fourth-year mechanical engineering student Dave Adams had for a teammate after his first time testing the car showed me I wasn’t dealing with conventional athletes.

“You got cow shit on the shock-limiting strap,” he said.

Seeing such obstacles is difficult when you’re going 60 km an hour mowing down four-foot weeds in a field north of Kingston. Adams, the five-member team’s project manager and designated driver, said despite the location of their drive-testing ground, there’s more to the team than mud and mosquito bites. “A lot of people think off-road racing is redneck,” he said. “We spend a lot more time in a computer lab than you’d think.”

Unlike other team’s locker-rooms, the team has machines that cut stainless steel with a high-pressure stream of water. Heavy-duty equipment is necessary as they build a new car every school year to race over the summer.

Baja racing originated in Baja, California in the 1960s and the Queen’s team has been participating in competitions run by the Society of Automotive Engineers since the inaugural race in 1976. Over 100 university teams design and build a cost-effective car to race in three competitions per summer throughout North America during the summer. The Queen’s team runs a budget of $20,000 compiled from alumni, funding from the University and corporate sponsorship. They placed in the top 15 in two of three competitions last year, finishing seventh overall in Oregon and 11th in Alabama.

Each competition splits a weekend into three events: technical and cost-efficiency inspection, dynamic events testing acceleration, suspension and manoeuvrability and a four-hour wheel-to-wheel endurance race on Sunday. Adams said Sunday’s race is the pinnacle.

“It’s the ultimate test of your car,” he said. “Anything and everything that can break will. It’s not uncommon to see cars with broken suspensions or wheels flopping off just sitting on the track.”

The team has experienced similar setbacks. At a competition in Wisconsin last spring the team fell victim to one of the many common occurrences expected during the endurance race.

“We saw these huge clouds of smoke and I was thinking I hope that’s not our car. It was,” team-member Brett Goemans said.

The car flipped, but Adams said it wasn’t a big deal. He was driving the car at the time and said the car is designed to roll. They flipped it back over, drained the smoking oil out of the engine and Adams was back on the road unharmed.

Adams said I would need to be familiar with the $10,000 machine before driving it, but after hearing some stories, I had doubts. The safety equipment extinguished my inhibitions. First came the fire-retardant sweater, followed by a heavy-duty helmet, gloves, goggles, five-point harness and wrist restraints to keep my arms inside the vehicle and in their sockets in the event of a tip.

The team sticks to the word of a 200-page safety regulations and rules book.

Adams said the inspection portion of competition is the most intense.

“When they’re doing the technical inspection, you’re standing there pretty stressed out,” he said. “They actually go over every nut and bolt. It’s not uncommon to be sent away for not having the correct grade of bolts somewhere. Their policy is the more people they send away, the better.”

Once the teams are cleared to participate, they’re subject to a series of obstacles designed to break the car they spent an entire school year building. Tests forcing the car to manoeuvre over logs and rock gardens gauge the cars suspension while thick four-foot deep pools of mud swallow the cars and see if they can escape. Adams said a new challenge is being reinstated this year.

“There used to be a water course each year that cars had to be amphibious to cross,” he said. “They had it at a site in 2005 and they kind of diverted a stream from a protected wet-land, so it wasn’t going for a while.”

The obstacles litter the endurance track, making the four-hour race the most important. The events total 1,000 points. While the other events are each worth up to 100 points, the endurance portion is worth 400.

Adams said the wheel-to-wheel competition is what makes the four-hour race so exciting.

“You’ll fight with someone for a lap and a half and every corner you can’t quite do it. Then you get past and it’s the greatest feeling.”

Adams said getting caught up in the thrill can jeopardize his chances, though.

“It’s easy to think I have to get past this guy, I have to get past this guy, but then you go too fast and break the car,” he said. “When it’s four hours the better approach is to just concentrate on your own race and let the other person break.”

The team is in the design stage, implementing the improvements that hindered them during competition last year. Except for the engine, the team designs and creates every part on the car. The task requires motivated students clocking up to 30 hours a week.

“We get 100 people out for our first meeting, then fewer and fewer show up until we have a four or five hardcore guys,” Adams said. “We don’t cut people, people cut themselves. Usually people just aren’t willing to put in the effort, but those who are willing do.”

Adam’s said the team is all about getting practical experience.

“It’s defined my experience at Queen’s,” he said. “My first year I just showed up when I was bored between classes and someone handed me a tube and said start working. Once you learn something, you’re teaching it to someone else.”

Pick up the Journal next Friday, Sept. 25 to read about our foray into fencing.

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