McGill Formula Electric team members analyze the performance of their electric racecar at a September 2019, competition at the University of Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Ella Reifsnyder)

Accelerate into the corner and pull the wheel hard to the right, sending that tail end sliding – turn into the direction of the skid and enjoy the slide.

You know, drifting.

Or…

Rotate the steering wheel 185° clockwise while pressing down on the accelerator pedal. As the vehicle responds to the sudden direction change, its rear wheels exceed the frictional force between the tire and the road, sending them spinning. The car’s rear end slides hard to the left as the vehicle’s forward momentum converts to centripetal movement. If not countered, the car will spin in a full circle. The driver must immediately rotate the steering wheel sharply counterclockwise to ensure front wheels continue rolling to maintain traction, converting that centripetal force back into forward motion.

You know, drifting.

Which one sounds more fun?

With massive shortages in students following science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career paths, motorsports-based education programs can provide a pipeline for new talent. Racing-based programs can introduce young people to some of the world’s most extreme technical challenges, allow them to hone skills, and provide an entertaining environment that can create a lifelong love of performance engineering.

“Everything about racing is STEM-education related. There are physics and math on the racecourse,” says Loxley Browne, founder and CEO of Athena Racing, a San Diego, California, non-profit that recruits high-school girls to compete in amateur racing circuits. “We’re putting these car together, so we’re going to have to fabricate our own pieces to create the car. So, it’s hands-on, actually learning how to do it all yourself.”

Athena is less than a year into its effort to adapt three Mazda Miata coupes into drifting racecars, something that will involve replacing engines, swapping out suspension components, and redesigning dozens of key systems. The five girls doing the work are 16 or 17 years old with limited driving experience, little formal STEM training, but a need to go fast and have fun.

“This will be a foundation for the 16-year-olds to learn about life and business. We just make it really cool and sexy because it revolves around a race car,” Browne says. “There’s so much to learn – life’s not always going to go the way you predict, there are going to be a few speed bumps, but what comes out is probably better than what you were expecting.”

McGill Formula Electric’s car crosses the finish line at Formula Student Electric 2019 finals in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Ella Reifsnyder)

Student racing

Many engineers, material scientists, and designers working for major automakers first experienced working on cutting-edge technology during their university days with programs such as Formula SAE from SAE Int’l., Germany’s Formula Student, the Solar Car Challenge, or the General Motors/U.S. Department of Energy’s EcoCar program.

Competitive programs allow winners to work with major automakers, earn internships, and make contacts that will be invaluable upon graduation. A 2016 Today’s Motor Vehicles feature on students involved with The Ohio State University’s EcoCar team featured four team members, all of whom graduated and took engineering jobs with major automakers (one of whom has since returned to attend grad school).

Winning on the student racing track is important because it shows that you’re meeting the engineering challenges ahead of you, says Ella Reifsnyder, team captain of McGill University’s (Montreal, Canada) Formula Electric team for the past two years. McGill’s team won 2019’s race. More importantly, she adds, the program gives her and other students a better understanding of the mechanics of movement, something that’s not always clear in the classroom.

“I wanted something hands-on. I wanted something technical. McGill can be a really theoretical university, preparing students for the GRE and grad school. I wanted something more concrete,” Reifsnyder says.

McGill Formula Electric team members celebrate after winning the 2019 competition. Their vehicle dominated design and acceleration categories in the contest. (Photo courtesy of Ella Reifsnyder)

Hands-on training

For the 2020 season, that means pushing engineering concepts that automakers have discussed for decades but never implemented – and making them work. McGill’s racer this year features hub motors in each wheel rather than one large motor and a mechanical drivetrain. Major automakers have shown off concept cars with such motors, but none have made it into production, though startup electric pickup maker Lordstown Motors is promising hub motors in its upcoming Endurance model.

Reifsnyder says hub motors may be more difficult from a software and electric controls point of view, but mechanically they’re simpler than running driveshafts through a vehicle or building power transmission systems. Making the car easier to build was key to 2019’s success.

“Everything we do is a knowledge transfer from previous years. We get a continuous flow of new people into the program – 200 new recruits per year, usually. Only about 40 people are really active at any time, but a lot of people join in,” Reifsnyder explains. “Going into this year, we wanted to stay focused. We wanted to keep weight under 400 lb., and we wanted to keep it easy to manufacture to leave us more time for testing and tweaking the control systems. Keeping it easy to build should let us finish the car in early May and have more than a month for testing.”

Students built and programmed a launch-control system to ensure fast acceleration at the starting line. Software students worked out the algorithms, and electrical engineers hand-soldered many of the control units. Students simulate component performance using software donated by sponsoring companies (see sidebar pg. 26), generate 3D designs using CAD/CAM programs, and map out electric systems using the same design tools used by major automakers.

For some, it’s all about honing skills and preparing for a career. Others want the experience of driving fast around the track – students are the cars’ drivers in addition to being engineers, designers, and mechanics.

“I joined the team for the engineering challenge. At the start, I didn’t care if that challenge was racing or anything else, I just wanted to develop my skills,” Reifsnyder says. “But, spend enough time around this team, and you learn to love the racing part.”

Athena Racing team members Marissa Olivares (left), Adeline Slocum, Shayne Conner, and Zuniga attend a March training event in California.

Opportunities

In California, Browne says she’s taking the opposite approach – stoking her girls’ interest in racing and performance and turning that into an appreciation for engineering. And so far, that approach is working. All five initial Athena Racing team members wanted to be drivers when they applied for the program, thinking that driver or mechanic were the only two jobs available in racing.

“I’m listening to their ideas change on a monthly basis now. I get to go behind the curtain and see what’s back there,” Browne says. “One who came in wanting to be a professional driver, she’s now into fabrication. She was already mechanically inclined, but now she’s saying, ‘I want to be the one that creates these cars and transportation systems of the future.’”

Lorraine Donald, skills development advisor for McGill’s Faculty of Engineering, says it’s important for students to experience potential careers early to assure themselves that they enjoy the work, to see if they have the talent or personality to thrive in that sort of environment, and to start developing the skills needed for employment.

“In Canada, we’re an accredited program, so there’s not a lot of wiggle room in the curriculum. You have to take these courses,” Donald says. But, she adds, “an internship or a design project on a team, it allows them to say, ‘Oh that’s what these years of theory have been for.’ It gives them the strength, oftentimes, to keep going with degree programs, and it clarifies their career goals.”

Athena Racing team members take virtual laps to get ready for track season. (Photos courtesy of Athena Racing)

Some students develop critical non-technical skills – directing teams of colleagues, communicating goals to potential donors, interviewing with magazine editors. They learn, and they teach.

“Early on, they get to learn from their peers, who may be a year two older from than them, about what a team’s done in previous years. And then, they also get to coach the next generation of team leaders. Learning how to transfer that kind of knowledge can become very valuable,” Donald explains.

Reifsnyder says four team members who graduated from McGill Formula Electric last year now work for Tesla. She graduates in May and is interviewing there as well. Or, she may go to SpaceX, the private rocket company also run by Tesla founder Elon Musk. While she worked hard in classes at McGill, she says her leadership of the racing team provided critical skills.

Donald adds that as important as finding the perfect after-college job can be, it’s important to remember that driving around a racetrack is more than educational – it’s a blast.

“Because of the competition, because of the team effort, because other people are really counting on you, there’s a whole lot going on. There’s a sense of community,” Donald concludes. “Other than winning, you’re not really being graded. So, it’s fun. It’s fun and hard work at the same time.”

Athena Racing https://athenaracing.org

McGill Formula Electric https://www.mcgillformulaelectric.com

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is editor of TMV. He can be reached at 216.393.0271 or rschoenberger@gie.net.