Mud. Dust. Dirt. Exhaust fumes. That may not sound too appealing to you, but for Ryan Hendrickson ’08, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

For more than two years, Hendrickson longed for the day when he’d be splattered with mud and breathing in the pungent fumes of a Briggs & Stratton engine. Between April 2006 and May 2008, this engineering major, with a concentration in software engineering, led a team of students and faculty that designed and built an off-road vehicle for the annual Baja SAE Collegiate Design Series competition. 

Sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Baja SAE is a unique competition in which teams of engineering students design and build an off-road, all-terrain vehicle to conquer a rugged course and survive various grueling events. The inaugural Mini Baja event was held in 1976 at the University of South Carolina, and it was the first competition in what would become SAE's Collegiate Design Series.  

Baja SAE offers students a challenging engineering project that teaches them about the process of introducing a new product to the consumer industrial market. The competition pits teams against each other as they battle to have their design accepted for manufacture by a fictitious firm. It’s a comprehensive project that requires students to work together not only to design, build, test, promote, and race a vehicle according to a set of strict guidelines, but also to generate adequate financial support. And they have to achieve all this while still keeping up with their other academic obligations. 

This year’s Baja SAE Illinois competition – one of three offered by SAE – took place May 29–31 at Caterpillar's Edwards Demonstration Center & Learning Center in Peoria, Ill. The testing grounds featured a challenging 1.4-mile dirt and gravel endurance track filled with obstacles that challenged every aspect of each vehicle’s design, and included a log pull, a hill climb and a land maneuverability test.   

RMU’s team was led by a core group made up of project manager Hendrickson, freshman and lead engineer Jeff Cox, freshman Craig Hatok, freshman Adam Lutty and junior Mike Wood. Other team members included freshman Jason St. Jacques, sophomore Tim Skelton, junior James Doswell, and Rich Johnson ’08, Tanuj Kohli ’08, Dominiq Perrian ’08, Kevin Siverd ’08, Mike Boehm ’08, Alan Hickey ’08 and Dave Zusinas ’08.

The project was completed with the support of Winston Erevelles, dean of the School of Engineering, Mathematics and Science; Joe Iannelli, head of the Department of Engineering, who served as resource coordinator; Priya Manohar, engineering professor, who served as full-time faculty adviser; and Gary Yarmeak, associate laboratory engineer, who served as the technical advisor. The project came about because Hendrickson approached Erevelles with a request to embrace a project with significant student engagement. So, the two hunted for a project that would challenge students from various engineering majors to practice engineering techniques, solve real-world problems, motivate other students to want to participate in the engineering department, and raise national and local awareness of the University. 

Hendrickson and Erevelles discovered the Baja SAE challenge while searching online for national engineering competitions. A hands-on project that attracted national attention, it seemed like a good fit. “We wanted something that would enable our students to exercise their engineering skills while getting their hands dirty,” said Erevelles. “Obviously, this was the perfect project for that.” 

The engineering team approached the project in four phases: research, design/integration, building and testing/racing, with the first step being the completion of a cost and design report.  

By fall of 2006, expecting to race the car in the spring, the team spent numerous hours working on the vehicle, gathering information and building a prototype frame using 3-D modeling software. However, by December they had significant setbacks. They had no sponsors, no budget, and they also had deferred some key decisions that were now coming due. By the time they went to register for the event, the race was already full. Reluctantly, they had to postpone the project for another year.

“We put it off for a year to go back and revisit some of the design decisions that were initially made,” said Hendrickson. “We had to decide whether we were going for 4-wheel drive or 2-wheel drive, what type of transmission it was going to have, and so on.” 

The team didn’t let this setback discourage them, however, and they knew that they couldn't let a semester go to waste. By the spring of 2007 they were diligently working on a PVC prototype, which would give them a better idea of how they were going to design the car and would also help to recruit new team members during the freshman tours. An added advantage of the PVC construction was affordability – the model could be built for under $100. 

As the freshman class began arriving that fall, new students became interested and started to participate in the project. Cox, Hatok and Lutty rose to the top. “Of all the students initially considered for the project,” said Hendrickson, “Jeff, Adam and Craig were the most interested. Jeff, especially, really wanted to take a leadership position. So, as my senior semester wound down, Jeff assumed the role of project manager, although I stayed very active in the project.” 

By spring of 2008, Lutty had been heading up the chassis design modifications. “This was without a doubt the largest part of the project,” said Hendrickson. “Without having a solid frame design, components may not attach correctly or break during racing.” 

Facilitated by Manohar, the team went to TriArc, a Blawnox, Pa., company that manufactures steel rolling ladders, where an RMU Engineering alumnus, Tim Resciniti ’02, spent several hours helping them bend the pipe for the vehicle chassis. Manohar and Yarmeak trained the Baja team members on how to use the welding equipment and different welding techniques.

The team also looked at competitors’ cars that did well and modeled theirs off of those. They went through four revisions of their original model before they came up with a final design. “The Baja rulebook is very strict,” said Lutty. “Every time a new part came in, I’d have to change something in the design to make sure we met the guidelines.”

In May, once finals were complete, Jeff, Adam, Craig and Ryan dedicated every waking minute to the vehicle's completion. By the end of the month, they were finally ready to take on the challenges of Baja SAE 2008. 

The team arrived in Peoria on Tuesday, May 26. The following day, they worked on putting the finishing touches on their vehicle. On Thursday, the team had a busy schedule that included a tech inspection as well as both a sales and design presentation. Hendrickson and Lutty handled the presentations, in which they marketed their vehicle as two models: a sport model and an economy model. 

Saturday was the real test for the vehicle, however, as they participated in the endurance part of the competition. The RMU vehicle, piloted by Hendrickson, completed 10 laps and was one of only 25 to survive that long.  

Steve Daum, SAE Collegiate Programs Manager, was impressed with the RMU team. “Lasting as long as they did in the endurance race exhibited sound engineering practices,” said Daum. “Each time they went around the track, we were waiting for them to be towed off. And yet, just a little while later, there they were going by again.”   

In the end, RMU finished 84th out of a field of 94 – a respectable result for a first-year team. They came in 56th in the endurance event and 42nd in the sales presentation category.  

“I can now say, without a doubt, that Robert Morris University is a respected name at Baja SAE,” said Hendrickson. “We were definitely the favorite, root-for-the-underdog team.”  

Erevelles is extremely proud of the team’s results, but even more so of their efforts.  

“I offered the team my thanks and congratulations on a job well done,” said Erevelles. “The first race is always the toughest, and each of the team members worked extraordinarily hard to bring this maiden race to a memorable conclusion. I cannot tell you how proud I am of our engineering students for their effort and perseverance in the face of significant odds. This is a prime example of student engagement and active learning. I am also grateful to the members of the SEMS Board of Visitors whose contributions towards student projects and initiatives funded various expenses associated with the event.” 

Iannelli admires the team’s commitment, enthusiasm and determination. “Failure is a word that just does not exist in the vocabularies of these energetic students,” says Iannelli. “I marveled at their stamina as they kept working into the early morning hours, two days before the competition, in the parking lot of a Peoria hotel, welding last-minute components to the vehicle. Their resolve made RMU’s Baja SAE participation an unquestionable success.” 

Baja SAE 2008 was not only a great way for Hendrickson to finish his studies at RMU, it was also a positive springboard to launch him into his next endeavor as a software developer for Boeing in Houston, Texas, where he now works on software quality testing for the International Space Station.  

“RMU’s software engineering program is excellent,” said Hendrickson. “It helped me get a job by giving me the tools I need to succeed on the next level. What more can you ask for?”