Have you ever wondered where the engineers that are responsible for developing the seemingly endless crop of new ATV and UTV models come from? Around the country throughout the year, SAE International holds several types of vehicle design competitions. Participating colleges design and fabricate vehicles, like the Bucknell University Baja Concept Build, that must meet all of the stringent requirements for the competition, while also trying to be as competitive as possible.
Due to my close proximity to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, over the past few years Dr. Craig Beal has reached out and allowed us to follow along with the progress of their Baja SAE Design Series car. As an added benefit, his students also can gain an opportunity to see first hand how some of the baddest ATV's and UTV's on the market are built and perform due to our demo pool. We often talk about new technologies and all of the amazing things that "could" be done to boost performance on their competition car. However, due to the 66 pages of rules, (http://bajasae.net/content/2017_BAJA_Rules_1_3_2107.pdf), most of those ideas aren't realistic to incorporate.
For those not willing to read those rules, I'll summarize the most important. All teams must use identical 10hp Briggs and Stratton OHV Intek, Model 19 engines. The engines cannot be modified in any way, shape, or form. They must use stock intakes and exhaust, and the rev limiter can't be removed or modified. Secondly, the roll cage has some very specific engineering standards that must be met. The idea is the utmost in safety standards must be followed. Most of the tube chassis end up looking strikingly similar due to the uprights and crossbars needing to be integrated into specific locations. There are also some rules for the location and mounting requirements of the seat, seat belts, and the mounting hardware. There are also numerous safety requirements that every team must have engineered into their design.
At the end of the day, the purpose is to make sure all of the design requirements are met. If not, the machine cannot compete. Secondly, since the powerplant is rocking a whopping 10HP, light weight and an efficient drivetrain are imperative. The team from Bucknell has done their best to eliminate anything that adds weight or scrubs power.
On competition day, the fabricated machines must run in several competitions, including an acceleration test, a hill climb, a maneuverability test, and a suspension test. This year folks from Honda, Polaris, Tesla, and Space X (to name a few) sponsored the event and some of their engineers were involved with judging the competition.
While I've been out to the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area in Coal Township, PA to test and shoot photos of the competition car over the last few years, I've never actually driven it. With the summer session in full swing, the good Dr. reached out and asked if I'd be interested in swinging by the University to take it for a little rip. Of course... I'm always up for testing anything with an engine, so I happily accepted.
At 6'2" and 195lbs, I'm a fairly large glass of water. The team this year decided they wanted to ditch the original seat and build one out of carbon fiber. It was an awesome idea that shaved something like 12-15lbs off the car. However, the high bolsters on the seat made me planting myself into it a bit of an adventure. I was never able to sit completely flat, so my long legs and crooked stature made driving the beast an adventure in itself.
With only a 10hp Briggs Engine, I wasn't expected much on the way of performance. However, I think the team did a very good job of dialing in the clutching on their CVT because it actually accelerated fairly well, and climbed up some decently steep hills. The Bucknell car features four-wheel independent suspension with dual a-arms up front, and a multi-link rear that mimics Can Am's trailing arm design. All four corners are hung from Fox Podium air shocks.
One of the better features on this year's car over previous cars was the addition of a locking/unlocking rear differential. In the past, Bucknell ran an open differential to help it turn better. That design, however, gave them some traction issues. This year, the addition of the mechanical locker, that is actuated via a cockpit mounted lever, gave them the best of both worlds. In UTV Driver or ATV Rider's world, if you want to turn sharp with a production machine, you mash the throttle and let the power help bring the rear around. Well....with 10hp that is impossible, so the selectable rear diff was an excellent idea.
To help keep the center of gravity (CG) low, the Bucknell car sits low. The experience is almost like driving a go-kart but with much more suspension travel and larger tires. For my seat time, we used some hills behind Bucknell University's golf course. So, it wasn't exactly a gnarly off-road course, but it was sufficient for me to get the feel of the car. There's a small hill that looks much larger when you're stuffed into the seat (I felt like 10lbs of crap in a 5lb bag) and screaming at it full tilt with the throttle sufficiently mashed, but that was where I eventually made the decision to "just send it". My kids, who were there watching, were a bit disappointed because I didn't get the kind of air they're used to. They kept screaming to GO FASTER....but I was going as fast as the 10HP Briggs would pull my stuffed in carcass. We launched that jump a dozen or so times, did some hill climbs, did a bit of high speed cornering, and ultimately enjoyed the experience.
I was a college kid once, but I never got the opportunity to participate in a valid, real-world design competition like this one. Competitions like this are phenomenal learning opportunities to get kids engaged and excited about creating fun, rewarding career opportunities. Our country seems to come up short on cranking out enough engineers to meet our demands. That being said, with guys like Bucknell University's Dr. Craig Beal and his willingness to create opportunities for his students to participate in competitions like this, it can only mean more great things to come from the ATV/UTV industry in the future!