VTRally prepares for its first race after years of building

Originally published by the Collegiate Times as News. 
Published in print edition, front page, on Tuesday, Sept. 29. 2015.

VT Rally is a team of 25 Virginia Tech senior mechanical engineers designing and building an off-road race car from scratch for a senior capstone project. They will be racing their car in the Method Race Wheels Laughlin Desert Classic in Laughlin, Nevada, from May 5-8, 2016.

BLACKSBURG, Va. — VTRally's car sits inside the WARE Lab, the team's on-campus workshop. Sam Paras, the team's co-captain, works on a computer. Photo by Zack Wajsgras/Collegiate Times
The idea began in 2013, and the vehicle will debut on the racetrack for the first time in the spring. John B. Ferris, Ph.D., the director of the vehicle terrain performance laboratory of Virginia Tech, is overseeing the team as the academic advisor. Alec Jones and Sam Paras, both mechanical engineering majors, are co-captains of the team.

“You have classes all day, sitting in a classroom, listening to professors, staring at a computer, and then, at the end of the day, you get to go and hang out with a bunch of relaxed people that are fun to be around, and you get to get your hands dirty a little bit and mess around with the car,” said Tess Robinson, who is part of the engine and drivetrain sub-team. “It completely relieves all the stress and makes you feel better.”

VTRally is comprised of three sub-teams: chassis and suspension, engine and drivetrain, and controls and electrical, in addition to a marketing team. The small size of the VTRally team allows for easy collaboration and familiarity.

“It’s only in its third year, so being a part of something that's new and trying to match the quality of the build of the other teams is something that we want to do, but also staying true to our values,” said Jonathan Alabran, a member of the controls and electrical sub-team. "It's really cool to be able to go to the western half of the country where there's probably people out there who have no idea what Virginia Tech is, so I think it's really cool to be able to go out there and share a part of Virginia Tech.”

The car has expanded significantly since its inception and exists as a two-seater vehicle with an estimated completion weight of 2,500 pounds. Most of the car remains unfinished, with many parts that still need to be completed and improved.

"There's a fair amount of engineering work to be done, but the project is already in its final stages,” Alabran said. “We created a prototype, so what we're doing now is improving issues. I think we have a really good outlook as far as our timeline; it's very realistic and it's very accomplishable.”

The team hopes to finish the car by the end of the fall semester, leaving the spring for final adjustments and test drives. Many students on the team have experience with vehicles and all share a passion for cars. One student will be chosen among them next semester to drive the car during the race.

"It's the best learning experience: getting hands-on experience,” Robinson said. “It teaches me way more than any class could, and I feel like our team has so many experienced people that really know what they're doing and they're also very passionate, and it's just people that are very easy to learn from.”

 Currently, the team is optimizing suspension and frame designs and is working to integrate headlights, taillights, engine mapping capabilities, GPS tracking and real-time telemetry on digital displays. The team also began working with SOLIDWORKS last week, a 3-D CAD design software. Fueled by donations and sponsorships, last year’s team collected more than $100,000 as well and received physical car parts, including a 2.0-liter EcoBoost motor from a Ford Focus ST with a Weddle Transaxle and suspension level of 20 inches.

"If it gets done and we race it, we can show everyone else that we're such a young team but we managed to get this car done and race it. Hopefully more people will join the team next year and it'll just continue to grow and be one of those Ware Lab projects that goes on for years,” said Eric Rauchenberger, a member of the chassis and suspension sub-team. “I feel like this team is really committed and everyone seems like they're really interested in the project as a whole, and no one's just doing it for a grade.”

This year’s team continues to be active in pursuing sponsors daily, with a goal of $74,000 for this year to cover safety equipment, travel and competition expenses, manufactured components, tools and shop equipment, and raw materials.

"It's going to be a lot of work this year, it's going to be a lot of time spent, probably more than if we would've chosen other projects, but I think it's also going to be so rewarding that I don't think the time's ever going to bother us,” Robinson said. "We're just going to be really proud that we're just a small team from Virginia Tech that is racing in a huge race that's actually televised: people can watch this.”

Ashley Anderson, a senior public relations major and member of the marketing sub-team, describes the team as being both hardworking and fun.

"Every time I'm in the Ware Lab, there's somebody in there working hard, making sure they're staying on schedule for making all the changes that they have to,” Anderson said. “They're really dedicated, and I would love to see them go and race and get out there and test what they've been building.”

The team emphasized their welcoming of volunteers and curious students while preparing for busier workloads ahead as the semester progresses.

“We're all a great group of engineers and we love teaching people about vehicles,” Rauchenberger said. “If anyone is interested in coming by and just looking at the car, there's always someone in the Ware Lab working on it, just because we're all inspired by what this university has to offer, and we're all thankful we're able to do a project like this.”

The race, called “Duel in the Desert,” is hosted by Canidae Tap It, and while it is targeted to amateur drivers, it will feature many competitive teams and professionals. The goal for this year’s team will be getting the car to the track and completing the race successfully.

“Even right now, I can see that it's a huge stress relief, and it's something that's fun to go do,” Robinson said. “Even though it's going to take a lot of time away from doing homework and things like that, it's going to be completely worth it: to be able to say, 'We built this car, we made it run, we're the reason that we're here.'”

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