Ready to roll: Car built by Pitt students to be tested in all kinds of ways

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At lunchtime Thursday, a group of toddlers stood behind a chain-link fence by a playground at North Park, munching on sandwiches while gazing at the parking lot on the other side.

The target of their stares was University of Pittsburgh senior Tom DuPree. He sat in a 6-foot-long racing car, its engine exposed under a metal frame. Wearing a flame-retardant jumpsuit and a basketball-sized helmet, his face was flushed from the 80-degree heat reflecting off the asphalt.

Mr. DuPree is president of Panther Racing, a team of Pitt students who build a racing car each year. A half-dozen other team members crowded around the car, attaching a video camera to the chassis and tightening his seat belts.

Pitt engineering students build race car from scratch

A University of Pittsburgh program for engineering students gives them an opportunity to build a race car from scratch. They were able to test the results on the pavement at North Park. (Video by Andrew rush; 5/9/20154)

They had greasy hands, sunburnt necks and businesslike facial expressions. Next week, they're competing in the race they work for all year: the Formula SAE Michigan.

Held at a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing track in Brooklyn, Mich., the competition attracts 120 teams of student engineers from around the world. Their cars are tested in all sorts of ways, including how quickly they accelerate and how efficiently they use gas. The event that's on Panther Racing's minds, though, is the endurance test -- a 13-mile race around a winding track that puts a lot of strain on the car's tires, suspension and motor.

For a couple minutes, Mr. DuPree had trouble starting the engine. Then it worked. The car bolted through a winding path of orange cones, emitting growls that attracted more children from the playground.

"I still love the sound of the engine bouncing off the trees," said Zeke Braun, the team's business manager.

For Mr. Braun and the other 41 members of the team, the car represents massive sacrifices of time, sleep and social lives. Countless times, they stressed and bickered over design snags. But it's all worth it when the car works, Mr. Braun said.

"When the thing's running, people here have huge smiles on their faces," he said. "When you put your soul into this, and see it run ..."

Panther Racing has been competing in Formula SAE for 27 years. This year, the team leaders are trying some new ideas. They divided labor like a modern company does, assigning groups to design the engine, chassis, suspension and other areas. They recruited students from the university's accounting and finance departments to look for sponsors and oversee the budget.

They're also collecting more data from the car, which was built with about $100,000 in funding from the university and other donors, including local companies like Alcoa and Westinghouse.

For example, sensors will measure the force moving through the suspension's beams. Next year's team could analyze the data to find out whether they can use lighter materials.

Being a part of Panther Racing brings benefits, team members said. It looks good on their resumes, and it helps them meet university alumni and important figures in the auto industry. Most importantly, it gives them experience in engineering and working as part of a team.

"This is far more valuable than test scores," said Emily Anthony, a sophomore who worked on Panther Racing for the first time this year. "You learn so much more."

All the work and stress fosters a sense of camaraderie, turning the team into a group of friends. During breaks from work, they relax over pizza, sushi and -- for those of them of legal drinking age -- beer. They also had some conflicts, though.

"As with all groups of friends, every once in awhile we want to kill each other," Mr. Braun said. "That's a bit of an understatement."

Mr. Braun has a deep knowledge of their car. When it stopped shifting gears in the middle of a lap, he quickly diagnosed the problem: gunk was building up in the shifting ram. A dose of WD-40 fixed it.

He doesn't plan to look for work in the auto industry, though. He wants to be a medical engineer, specializing in brain surgery. Ms. Anthony wants to design prosthetics; she thinks that some of what she's done on the team, such as studying the distribution of force in the car, will help her with that.

Mr. DuPree, on the other hand, wants a career in auto racing, either as a driver or on part of an engineering team. It's tough to break into the business unless you have money or you know someone, he said. He plans to attend lots of races where he can make connections.

"I like it for the personal challenge," he said. "You need to not only extract the most out of your car, but out of yourself."

Richard Webner: or 412-263-4903.

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