EDINBURG — Jacky Hay has been drag racing since she was 7 years old. At 18, she started racing with adult dragsters. Hay races twice a month, busing the six-hour round-trip to her hometown of Monterrey to compete during the weekends.
Still, despite her experience in racing, the junior at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was reluctant to join the UTRGV baja racing program.
“It can be intimidating,” said Hay, who joined in spring 2014. “There are a lot of guys, and there’s no experience for getting your hands dirty with cars and working with machinery, but this creates that background. Girls can be scared, and I think they think they don’t know anything and that will be a problem. It isn’t. We’re here to teach and learn.”
UTRGV’s baja racing program is founded upon opportunity, which is evident in how it has grown.
In 2001, the program had 12 students. Today, there are 96 registered students. When Hay joined, she was one of a couple of women involved. Now there are 10.
“Team is the crucial element,” said Arturo Fuentes, an engineering professor who started the program in 2000. “It’s not as simple as it seems. What we’d like is all the students become leaders in such a way that the work gets distributed and everyone has the opportunity to become a better engineer.”
Every year, UTRGV’s baja racing program competes in a national competition hosted by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) that concludes with a four-hour endurance race for a car built from scratch by the students. This year’s race is today in Bakersfield, California, and because of the strength of UTRGV’s team, faculty advisors Fuentes and Greg Potter and co-captains Domingo Villarreal and Noel Rodriguez have high expectations.
“All the goals we set for this car, we reached,” said Villarreal, a 30-year-old from McAllen who was raised in Houston. “The only goal we have left is to bring that trophy home. It’s a nervous time of year for us because we know how competitive we’re going to be. But we’ve never had the confidence that we do now.”
UTRGV placed 22nd out of 120 registered cars at last year’s national competition in Auburn. It is an overall ranking that includes not just how the car — which is essentially a go-cart on steroids — does during the endurance race, but also how it fares during design, acceleration and suspension tests.
When the UTRGV team set out to design this year’s car, it wanted a lighter, quicker vehicle. Villarreal and Rodriguez set out to reduce weight and the turning radius. Baja racing is a competition of off-road cars that travel rough terrain. A lighter car and smaller radius make for fluid racing.
From the start of the 2015-16 academic school year until early this month, at least 15-20 program members worked every Friday and Saturday to manufacture the car for about eight hours each day. Rodriguez designed the rear suspension. Joseph Montalvo, a graduate student from Pharr, designed the front suspension. Juan Carbon, a senior from Venezuela, designed the gearbox. One of three senior design teams worked the brakes. Sophomore Omar Hinojosa, a San Juan native who grew up in Reynosa, oversaw the frame design. Carbon and Rodriguez are the drivers.
“The point of the project is to give them some hands-on experience, some leadership skills they need when they graduate,” said Potter, a fifth-year UTRGV lecturer in his third year as supervisor of the team since taking over for Fuentes. “With engineering, you can’t just have a degree and no experience to go along with it.”
Through baja racing, Hay and Carbon earned “co-ops”, i.e. internships, with Toyota. Their knowledge of working with machinery, tools and robots made them attractive as employees.
“You learn research, manufacturing and the business side of a team with baja,” Carbon said. “Those automotive companies want student engineers. It makes it easier for them to prepare you if you know how to manage a design and a team. It’s the same thing they do there that we do here; it’s just a bigger scale over there.”
‘WE’VE WON ALREADY, HONESTLY’
Before the UTRGV team left the Valley earlier this week for the two-day drive to Bakersfield to compete in this weekend’s competition, students put the car through rigorous testing.
The team tested on campus in Edinburg and at on a property off 10th street in south McAllen. The goal was to break the car, and break the car it did.
The tie rods at the ball joint stripped so the driver couldn’t control the steering. The mounting tabs broke from the base of the tube, shearing off because of stress. A tire popped after the car crashed head-on into a tree.
This is all good. It allows the team to fix and improve things during testing instead of having to do so during competition. Last year, the car was finished about 10 days before the competition. This year, it was finished about a month in advance, allowing for more than enough time to test and analyze.
“As far as performance, I think it’s going to be really good,” Villarreal said. “It’s lighter. It’s faster. We’re confident it will withstand.”
Last year, UTRGV’s car weighed 398.7 pounds. This year, it’s 372. This year, the car has a turning radius of 6 1/2 feet. It was 12 last year.
This year’s car is even more economical. Last year’s cost $15,164. This year’s cost $13,900.
“The difference is the amount of engineering that has gone into this car,” Potter said. “Before, we’d have maybe one or two senior design project teams. This year we have three, four teams. There’s a lot more calculation and planning on the front end, and you can really see it paying off now.”
The only concerns are the tie rods — they might be too thin — and the binding of some metal. But Villarreal said those concerns are not significant.
“I feel like we’ve won already, honestly,” Potter said. “If we don’t succeed this year, I don’t know how we succeed any year, because we have such a great team.”
A NEVER-ENDING CYCLE
Rodriguez played basketball at La Joya High. He was a shooting guard. But the Mission native didn’t care as much for making 3-pointers or blocking shots as he did for simply being a part of a team.
“I’ve always been a part of a team since middle school,” Rodriguez said. “There’s nothing like a common goal between people and accomplishing it and doing what you set out to do.”
Though athletic, Rodriguez’s passion wasn’t sports. It was cars. Around the ceiling of his room at his Mission home, there are 165 toy Hot Wheels cars displayed in a circle. In second grade, Rodriguez doodled car drawings in notebooks.
His brother, Humberto Rodriguez Jr., graduated from UTPA in 2010 and is now a fracking engineer for Halliburton in Mission. Humberto was in baja racing the last three years and captain when the team placed 15th at the national competition in 2010, the team’s best finish.
“I’m trying to follow in his footsteps,” Rodriguez said. “Building something and the whole process from design, it comes from imagination. You put your smarts and knowledge and apply it for it all to come to life.”
While UTRGV’s baja racing program is certainly growing, it can be better. Students tirelessly fundraise, whether by selling raffle tickets, volunteering for summer camps in exchange for a $4,600 donation from a sponsor, or selling fajita plates on campus. The program aims for eight fundraisers per year.
“We’ve come a long way,” Fuentes said. “The only issue we’re still facing is the funding. It’s the challenging part. But in terms of impact and the depth of talent, we’ve come a long way.”
After today’s competition, the team will review the results of its finish and begin working on a car to compete next year. It’s a persistent, relentless cycle, though it does not go unrewarded.
“What we have is a mystical bond between man and machine,” Rodriguez said. “We are making it. This is a car done with our two hands and this is something that will pay off for our careers. It’s pretty exciting.”