The Kettering Mini Baja in action

Baja team goes cross country – literally

The biggest challenge the team had to overcome was its size. Operating with no more than three to four members at any given time due to Kettering’s experiential learning model, requiring rotating academic and cooperative work terms.

Kettering University Motorsports-Mini Baja team leader Erik Hardy took a gamble this year that didn’t pay off, and then again it did. Hardy, of Flint, booked the team for two SAE Collegiate Design Series competitions, one in Auburn, Alabama, and one in Oregon. A change in schedules put the two competitions almost back to back in April and May, and put the team’s proverbial back to the wall.

The custom made gear boxThe biggest challenge the team had to overcome was its size. Operating with no more than three to four members at any given time due to Kettering’s experiential learning model, requiring rotating academic and cooperative work terms, they were building a vehicle designed by Hardy and Jason Cremer who chose to use a gear box instead of chains.

“It was our first year using a gear box instead of chains for a drive train,” said Hardy. The custom gear box was sponsored by a three-way collaboration of Nexteer Automotive, Ann Arbor Gear and SWS Trimac, he said. It was also almost the team’s undoing.

With everything complete except installation of the gear box, the team was ready for the competition in Alabama April 19-22, but couldn’t test drive their vehicle. Operating on faith, Hardy packed up the Baja vehicle and a few teammates in an old panel truck he had purchased a month before and headed south.

The Kettering Mini Baja competing in Oregon“We went to Alabama on Friday hoping the gears would meet us at the competition site,” said Hardy. “The gears never made it. We could have made a drive train out of spare parts but were reluctant to do that,” he said.

Instead, Kettering’s team “adopted” the University of Alabama-Birmingham team that was heavy with freshmen. “I knew their faculty adviser from previous competitions and they had helped us out in the past – it was our turn to give back,” said Hardy. “We spent all night going back and forth to Auburn University to machine things for their car. We helped get them through tech and brake, but they didn’t finish the endurance run,” he said.

The delay on the gear box was caused by the complicated process necessary to construct it, according to Hardy. “One of our design constraints was that the gears couldn’t have splines or key ways, one because they are very expensive and the other because they are prone to breaking,” he said, “so we ended up welding the gears together. The tricky part is they are not normally welded,” he explained. SWS Trimac performed the electron-beam welding for the team.

The adventure continued as Hardy rushed one teammate to the airport in time to start a new job with Toyota Tech Center in Ann Arbor. Then he hit the highway solo, planning to meet two other teammates in Oregon for the next competition, and hoping the gear box would be ready and waiting for him when he got there.

Hardy made it to Portland the Thursday before the competition and the gear box made it to Portland Saturday morning.

The rear suspension begins to failSunday, still operating as a one-man team, Hardy started to put the gear box together. He ran into a problem when one of the two halves didn’t work at all.  “One of the bearings was crooked. I didn’t have the press to insert it like I would have in the Kettering SAE Garage,” he said, “so I had to heat it with a torch and hit it with a hammer. I eventually got it bolted together.”

Hardy got the vehicle running on stands and said it sounded fine, “so I drove it around parking lot and everything worked – which seemed odd. Usually the first time we test drive it something falls off or breaks, but nothing did,” he explained.

To really put the vehicle through its paces, Hardy took it to a dune area on the Oregon coastline that permits motorized vehicles. Permit in hand and orange flag on the vehicle, he test drove it along the scenic shore for more than three hours.  “A big wave tackled me at one point, there was water everywhere,” he said, “but still nothing fell off. I checked everything but nothing was wrong.”

With competition starting on Wednesday, May 2, Hardy’s teammates Zack Watts and Charles Essner flew out to Oregon on Tuesday. At the competition the team started to attract attention. “People started to notice we were a really small team,” said Hardy, “most teams have about 10 people.”

Competition events started on Thursday with the static events. “Tech Inspection is where we have always failed and then have to stay up all night fixing the vehicle,” said Hardy, “but we passed Tech Inspection with no problem – it was weird.”

Because they didn’t need to do any repairs to their own vehicle, the Kettering team helped out a South African team with some welding.   

The Kettering Mini Baja vehicle in piecesFriday featured dynamic events, The Kettering team earned 10th place in the hill climb, 36th place in acceleration, 21st place in cost, 4th place in maneuverability, 29th place in the rock crawl, and 36th place in design.

“Nothing broke on dynamic day and I was starting to freak out,” said Hardy. “Then it started to get crazy. A team from Mexico came and asked for roll cage material so we offered to help them build a new roll cage. They had an hour and a half to build a whole roll cage - it was chaos!  I felt at home,” he joked.

 “We had three welders going at one time, I have never welded so fast in my life.” The Mexican team passed the tech and brake test “and magic happened - they got to participate in the endurance race. I felt at home at that point because there was chaos, and welding and a lot of hammering. I was proud of our team helping them get through so they could race,” said Hardy.

“That was the first time I’ve been on a team that could help somebody else, usually we’re the ones getting the help,” he said.

On the final day the Kettering team started the endurance run in 16th place. Teams lined up by dynamic overall score. “The last few years we have always started last,” said Hardy. Other than a throttle problem, the vehicle was not reaching full throttle on open stretches, the team was doing well in the endurance race, according to Hardy, and actually passed some of the top teams.  But, at the two hour mark Kettering’s rear suspension was starting to break.

“It wasn’t going to be an easy fix so we just kept going,” said Hardy, explaining that it would have taken longer to fix than they had time to race. They decided to keep going to get as many laps in as possible because the number of laps counts toward the overall ranking.

Even with the compromised rear suspension Hardy said other teams “started to notice we were coming for them – we were not the fastest, but when it came to the rougher stuff we were doing really well.

Erik Hardy back at Kettering“I came in for a final pit stop with 45 minutes left in the endurance race and the car was still together, which was amazing because I wasn’t taking it easy,” he said. “Two or three laps later everything broke. I went over a little bump and the wheel was under the car. Everything was broken, the drive train, the rear suspension and the shock.”

Kettering University finished in 13th place in the endurance race with 46 laps in.

Despite the break down with 30 minutes left in the race, Kettering’s Mini Baja team finished in 18th place overall. “Eighteenth place isn’t too bad,” said Hardy, “but we can do better next year.”

For more photos of the Baja Team in Oregon, visit Kettering University on facebook at

Dawn Hibbard