MIT team races to second in electric car competition

There comes a time in a team's life when it's impossible not to break into a grin. Which is what the MIT Motorsports team did when they snagged a Second Place Overall Spirit of Excellence Award at the Society of Automotive Engineers' Formula SAE Electric competition in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The MIT Motorsports team is all smiles with their Second Place Overall Spirit of Excellence Award silver trophy at the Formula SAE Electric competition in Lincoln, Nebraska. SMechE senior Will Harvey was the MIT Motorsports team driver. Photo courtesy of MIT Motorsports

The team earned high finishes in four different categories at the June 24 event, which is part of the SAE Collegiate Design Series. They placed second in the category of Endurance, third in Autocross, third in Skid-Pad, and fifth in Acceleraton. In the Endurance category — which tests acceleration, speed, handling, dynamics, efficiency, and reliability over a 22-kilometer course — the MIT Motorsports team had the fastest lap at 83.7 seconds and overall finished just 17 seconds behind the winners, Penn Electric Racing from the University of Pennsylvania. 

“This has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and I couldn’t be happier with the results,” team captain Luis Mora said in an email to current and past team members.

MacGyver-style fixes, same-day delivery of key components

The team encountered multiple challenges leading up to the competition.  

Upon arrival in Lincoln, the early-arriving team members discovered that a battery pack contactor had a stripped stud and was unusable. The only replacement contactor was back at the shop at MIT. That left one option: Team member and junior Cameron Ordone drove to the shop, found contactors, tested their resistors, and delivered them to Area 51 CNC shop manager and team advisor Pat McAtamney just minutes before his flight boarded at Logan Airport.

But that wasn't the only problem that required a last-minute fix. First, the vehicle’s front wing did not meet the contest's rules and required modifications. Then a pedal box tab on the frame had a catastrophic mechanical failure during the braking test, so the team had to weld on a sturdier tab and undergo another inspection in order to compete in the day’s events.

“Luis’ leadership of the team was crucial. He made good decisions and stuck by them,” McAtamney said.

Smiling inside the helmet

The team's seniors played a significant role in the group's success. Now graduates, some of them have accepted positions with General Motors and SpaceX and had worked on three consecutive MIT Motorsports electric vehicles. The seniors, Mora said, “rebuilt the team, and now it is our turn to make sure the team progresses forward.”

Senior Will Harvey, who drove the car in the competition, was understandably pleased with the outcome.

“Nothing in the classroom can prepare you for the disappointment of a little water ruining a year of work,” he said, referring to the 2016 competition when the team had issues with the rain test that prevented them from competing in the Endurance category. “But when you turn the final corner and see the checkered flag in a car that you built with 25 friends, you just have to smile a bit inside the helmet.”

When you’re in competition, everything matters, McAtmaney said.

“If we can turn third places into firsts or second places, and do better at Autocross [a one-lap manuvering competition that determines the starting order for the Endurance event], then the team has a good chance of winning next year.”

Junior Cheyenne Hua, the newly-appointed team captain for the upcoming year, said the team's second-place finish this year “proved that we were good.”

“But there is still work to be done before we become exceptional,” she said.