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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Old Dominion Formula SAE Teams Compete This Month

When Elliott Clowdis arrived at Old Dominion University in the fall of 2012, he joined the Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) team, because how fun would it be to build a small race car? Like other members of the team over the past decade, Clowdis quickly found out it's harder than it looks.

"There have always been roadblocks, obstacles to overcome. Ordering parts and them not arriving on time, bad luck happening," said Clowdis, a mechanical engineering student from Lynchburg.

His first year with the Formula SAE team, the team leader (who acts as project CEO) quit two months before the national competition.

"It was a miracle we got to the competition. We finished our car the day before we left." And how did that competition go? "It didn't go too well, honestly," he said.

But, two years later, Clowdis is now taking his turn as team leader. Despite the annual struggle to get ready for the competition, an enthusiastic group of Old Dominion students will take their Formula SAE car to Michigan International Speedway May 13-16, to compete with more than 100 college and university teams in the international Formula SAE event.

The trials and tribulations are actually pretty good life experience for the Batten College of Engineering and Technology students as they prepare for careers, said Colin Britcher, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and one of the team's faculty advisers.

"We've got a really enthusiastic and talented group this academic year, including a number of underclassmen who will form the core of future years' teams," Britcher said. "There are always hiccups, but that is part of the experience of managing this type of project with tight technical, cost and schedule constraints. The team is going to get there."

Two teams of engineering students are constructing vehicles in a laboratory in the new Engineering Systems Building on campus, having moved over from an outmoded garage space in a warehouse across Hampton Boulevard.

Kyle Gibson, a mechanical engineering technology student from Chesapeake, is project leader for the Baja SAE team, designing and constructing a dune buggy for their national competition in Maryland, May 7-10.

Truthfully, the Old Dominion Baja SAE team is challenged, too.

Last year, the team safely got their vehicle to the competition in Wisconsin, only to have an axle break just before the judging started.

"We were pushing the car over to the tent where the signup takes place, and in our drivetrain, one of our axles popped out of place. It made everything fall apart," Gibson said.

After a few minutes of "Why us again?" team members got to work constructing a replacement drivetrain from scratch. They missed the first day of judging. But in the event's signature, cross-country rally race, Old Dominion finished in the top 25 percent of more than 100 teams.

That indefatigable spirit has been a constant of Old Dominion SAE teams over the years.

"It blows your mind at first. Teams from all over the world show up with huge teams, and full-fledged sponsorships painted all over their cars," Clowdis said. "But we love the underdog role. And we've been doing better with sponsorships this year."

As team leaders, Gibson and Clowdis are responsible for overseeing every facet of the competition, including raising money to attend. Every year, dozens of volunteers show up for the first few meetings, but many melt away when the sheer amount of work to construct a Formula or Baja SAE car comes to light.

"We've been fortunate this year. Three or four of our new team members have really stepped into a leadership role right away," Gibson said.

The new laboratory space in the Engineering Systems Building has been a bit of a game-changer for the two teams as well. There is a bit less space, but the facility is centralized, modern and well organized. And there is one unexpected benefit, Clowdis said.

"Since we're in the main engineering building, they bring tours through here all the time. We'll be in here working on a Friday and all of a sudden Dean (Oktay) Baysal will be leading a tour of engineering executives through our lab," said Clowdis. "It helps with recruitment."