Overdrive: Swanson Race Car Goes Abroad

Issue Date: 
July 6, 2015

A formula-style race car, designed and built by a team of Swanson School of Engineering students, is going the distance this year. After placing 34th out of 120 cars in May at the annual Formula SAE® competition in Detroit, the car is now en route to Germany and Austria—along with 15 students who built it. 

Car built by Pitt’s Panther Racing Formula SAE ClubFormula SAE is Formula One at the college level: a design and racing competition, organized by SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers). The objective is to design and build a small formula-style race car for a fictional manufacturing company. The winning car is not just the fastest, but also the best in fuel economy, manufacturing costs, and other design criteria. 

The challenge is monumental, and for Pitt’s Panther Racing Formula SAE Club, it begins each summer. About 25 engineering and business students, and a few grad students, work tirelessly to meet strict deadlines on three phases of production. In the research and design phase, the car and its parts are modeled using 3-D technology. SAE International sets the parameters and changes them dramatically every two years. 

Next comes manufacturing, a period that runs from early November through early March. Between going to classes and studying for midterms and finals, the mechanical engineers get their hands dirty in the sub basement of Benedum Hall. All-nighters are common, as is sleeping a night or two (or more) in the undergraduate machine shop. 

The annual timeline calls for the car to be unveiled in early March to begin the testing phase. This year, everything culminated in May at the Michigan International Speedway, where Pitt’s team took on 119 other challengers from across the country and the world.

Pitt’s team has also registered for two international competitions this year—for the first time since 2001. The push to compete in Germany came from John Conturo, a recent Swanson School graduate and Panther Racing’s technical director, who studied abroad at the Technical University of Munich last summer. While there, he visited the Hockenheimring racetrack with the Munich SAE team and returned to Pitt excited about FS Germany, widely regarded as the best Formula Student competition in the world. 

And then there’s Austria.

“Austria was kind of an afterthought,” admitted Emily Anthony, a senior mechanical engineering student and the team’s public relations and internal affairs manager. It just seemed rational: “The car’s already over there, Austria’s race is only a week later, registration is only €1,000, which is relatively easy to fundraise, so… we’ll go to Austria, too.”

To cover the car’s shipping costs, the team appealed to sponsors, including the Swanson School, Pitt’s Student Government Board, Norfolk Southern, and Alcoa (who supplies the car’s aluminum). They also launched a crowdfunding campaign, and a Swanson School alumnus donated $7,000. Together, the team raised about $15,000—enough to cover the trip across the Atlantic for the car, and even a few team members. 

The boat carrying car #71 will dock in Bremerhaven, Northern Germany, where the Munich team that Conturo met will unload it and bring it to their university. There it will await the July 28-Aug. 2 competition at the Hockenheimring Formula One racetrack in the Rhine Valley. The vehicle will make its way to Austria for a smaller showdown on Aug. 10-13 at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg. 

Emily Anthony hopes this year’s car will do well on the international scene. This is the second Pitt race car she has been involved with but she has already seen considerable success. At the annual Formula SAE competition in Michigan last month, with 40 Pitt students in attendance, Panther Racing placed 7th in Engineering Design for the first time in history: a good omen. The car also finished 15th in acceleration. The 34th overall ranking is the best the team has placed since 2011. 

Germany will raise the stakes, Anthony said. “Competition is much more rigorous over there because they’re the best automotive schools in the world. We are going to learn a lot from the competition by observing the best of the best teams. And it’ll only be good for us. Plus it increases our world ranking,” she added. 

Amid the excitement of international competition, the team is also looking ahead to 2016. Anthony, who was recently elected Panther Racing’s next executive director, said they’ve already begun the process on the 2016 car: “We’re going to refine, instead of redesign,” she likes to say, in light of this year’s success. The formula rules don’t change going into next season, so why scrap a good thing?