Mechanical engineering students at The University of Texas-Pan American didn't let inclement weather muddy their experience competing in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Mini Baja competition.
Instead, they saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the field they love and help a community devastated by powerful tornadoes.
The UTPA team competed against 100 or so other universities throughout the nation, as well as Mexico , Canada, Brazil and Argentina in the Mini Baja competition in Pittsburg, Kan. in late May. On the way to the competition, the students delivered water and other supplies to communities that were devastated by a series of storms and tornadoes in the Joplin, Mo. area.
"It felt really good actually to help the people of Joplin," said Rodrigo Madrigal, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.
They also hosted STEM workshops for middle school students to raise money for the trip. UTPA's Mini Baja team also received help from Marathon Oil, TDIndustries and other businesses to finance all the expenses related to the competition.
"It's a win-win situation because our students are doing some community service and at the same time they get a little bit of funds to build the vehicle and tow it to the competition," said Dr. Arturo Fuentes, associate professor of mechanical engineering and the team's faculty sponsor. "They are also inspiring the next generation to pursue careers in engineering."
But throughout their journey they never stopped focusing on the competition. Team members spent most of the 2010-2011 school year designing, building and testing the vehicle, which they named "Ironhide."
"You go to sleep dreaming of the car, you wake up thinking of the car," Madrigal said.
All their planning couldn't have prepared them for the challenging conditions they faced when they arrived in Kansas. The area received much rainfall, soaking the obstacle course on which all the student teams would have to drive.
The teams underwent a series of competitions, including a sled pull, top speed test and a four-hour endurance race on a muddy motor cross track. Students had a difficult time walking on the track to service the vehicles, let alone racing, the UTPA team said.
"We were covered up to our knees in mud," said Madrigal. "It was like a giant slip and slide. As you're walking, you're having to balance and try to maneuver your way through mud and even walking through mud is hard enough."
Another team member, Ernesto Ortega, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, said the mud made everything twice as hard for the pit crew.
"Even doing a simple pit stop took us 5-10 minutes - it should take 2-3 minutes - but it took us longer because we had to have the guy in the car accelerate and we had to push the car out of the pit," Ortega said.
The slick terrain conditions caused many vehicles to crash during the race, but no one sustained injuries, thanks to the design of the Mini Bajas, Fuentes and the students said.
UTPA placed 80th out of the 100 or so vehicles. Team members admitted they were disappointed by the outcome, but also saw it as a learning experience.
They learned the value of teamwork and perseverance. They also learned to prepare for the worst.
"You just want to get better and better," Madrigal said. "There's always something better, there's always something better you can do, there's always something better you can change."
The UTPA Mini Baja Team already is working on the design of its new vehicle and fundraising for next year's competition. The location of the SAE's contest for 2012 has not been determined yet.
Anyone interested in contributing to UTPA's Mini Baja team can contact Velinda Reyes, Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, at (956) 665-5301.