East Lansing has a hidden need for speed.
One of the few signs on campus of Michigan State’s Formula Racing team is the small trailer tucked behind Snyder-Phillips Hall.
But once you take a closer look, there’s so much more to uncover.
The team’s shop is located on Jolly Road in Okemos, about a 15-minute drive southwest from the heart of MSU’s campus. Every night, the shop is busy, as about 20 people work machining, measuring, cutting, drilling, simulating and more.
Every. Single. Night.
“All the summer is spent designing, all the fall is building, all the spring is testing and and all the summer is racing and overlaps with designing again,” said Paul Sandherr, State Racing’s project manager. “It’s really no days off, full-time go. That’s why we always say this isn’t really a club. It’s more like a sport because of that aspect. You’re always thinking about it. You’re always trying to prepare mentally or physically for these things you have to do.”
Sandherr has been a member of the team since he stepped into campus as a freshman. A half decade later, he said he understands the grind better than anybody.
The sanctioning body of what is now known as Formula SAE began as Mini Indy in 1979, when 11 teams participated in the inaugural event in Houston. Today, it’s one of the largest engineering competitions in the world.
Almost 500 registered teams worldwide compete in at least one of the nine international events held each calendar year. MSU’s team is participating in the major state, national and international competitions this season for the first time in the team’s history.
Formula SAE Michigan, held in Brooklyn at Michigan International Speedway, the state competition, will take place in May. Formula SAE Lincoln in Nebraska, the national competition, will take place in June and Formula Student Germany at Hockenheimring will take place in August.
“I’m really excited,” Sandherr said about the team’s inaugural trip to Germany. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for everyone. I’m really pumped I get to go over there with everybody on my team to see that car compete over there at the Hockenheimring. It’s basically about getting the money in, getting the ducks in a row.”
The team will need to create a custom tool crate to ship all the necessary tools to Europe, as well as break down the race car into multiple pieces to be reassembled once in Germany.
“We fall under an umbrella that’s giant,” Sandherr said. “It’s a design competition, it’s an engineering competition, and it’s a racing competition. We start out in the summer. We’re designing, we’re all on the computers trying to build the cars on the simulation and on the CAD software, trying to lighten everything from the year before make everything faster. And then when we get into the manufacturing process, which is around late fall, after we get all the new members and new recruits in, we start making all the parts.
“So it turns into a manufacturing competition where we’re trying to beat the clock and get everything made well and on time. By the time we get it all put together, it’s testing. We’re out there, driving the car, making sure everything is OK. When we get to the competition, that’s when race mode starts. That’s when you start thinking about your racing strategies, racing lines, how good your drivers is in the car. It comes down to a lot of things all in one.”
State Racing, which has alumni across the world and in racing organizations such as IndyCar, Corvette Racing and Cadillac Racing, is a independent nonprofit organization. All funding comes from the university and sponsors.
The group also gets donated services, such as tube bending, laser cutting and water jetting, from sponsors such as Bosch, Ford, 3M and Monster Energy.
The competitions consist of multiple races. The simplest is called autocross, which is one timed lap through the designated course. Another is called skid pad, which is a figure-eight race, testing corner speed suspension as well as aerodynamics. The final event is a 22-lap race, one that Sandherr says essentially “breaks your car.” That is worth the most points out of all the races.
“One of our big goals this year was to increase our static event points, which is the non-racing events,” Sandherr said. “This year, we did a full redesign of the car. We have a lot of new aspects that we hope will look really good in the design part. The cost report just has to be solid.”
But designing, engineering and manufacturing isn’t what most people think of when they hear that MSU has a racing team. It’s driving — and racing.
Brandon Miller drives the car in the skid pad and acceleration events, but also works on the vehicle five nights a week at the shop. He said also working on the car gives him and the team an advantage.
“It’s really nice that our drivers actually work on the car,” Miller said. “Because when you work on the car and are familiar with the components, you can actually tell driving when something is up — whether it’s catastrophic or maybe the engine just needs to be re-tuned. Actually being familiar with the car and working on it out here helps you be more familiar and able to troubleshoot from behind the wheel.”
Kai Selwa, who is the only female member of the team, said she has learned a multitude of skills. Selwa said she didn’t know at first that the team even existed.
“It’s really interesting, it drew me in,” Selwa said. “There’s something about the intensity, the amount of resources we have available to us. The things I’ve learned to do here are just incredible. We do some really cool stuff and things personally I wouldn’t be able to do. I wasn’t even sure if I could do the basic machining. But if you really are determined to learn, then you will. People from all kinds of different majors can join. They’ll teach you everything that you need to know. Nobody’s going to judge you for not knowing stuff.”
But why do people flock to the team in droves at the start of the year? Why do members stay late each and every night, working for something the majority of people don’t know exist?
“It’s really just a culture that you just have to like,” Sandherr said. “I think we all kind of like the torture of it. Embrace the stress. I have days when my eye doesn’t stop twitching. I have days when I go into the office and they ask me ‘Paul are you ok?’ I say no. But it’s all for what we like to do.”