Justin Norman flipped the visor down on his helmet and gripped the steering wheel.
“You kind of feel that adrenaline, like you do right before a big game,” Norman said. “It’s a pretty crazy feeling.”
The engine started and camera shutters began to click. Norman revved the engine a few times and then, with a nod to the crowd, took off weaving in and out of orange cones, only narrowly missing a few.
“It’s kind of like you get into the zone,” Norman said. “Once you get on the track and get a couple laps in, it really starts to feel nice. Especially with a great car like we’ve got.”
BYU engineering students showed off their winning hybrid formula car in front of several reporters and photographers Thursday in the west parking lot of LaVell Edwards Stadium. The students took first place overall in the international engineering and racing competition which included 39 schools from Canada, Spain, Taiwan and the U.S.
Robert Todd, professor of mechanical engineering at BYU, mentored the team of 16 students and helped them create a hybrid race car capable of going zero to 60 in 3.6 seconds. But his real purpose isn’t building cars, he said. It’s building people.
“When you’ve got something with wheels on it that goes fast, that’s a great motivator for them to learn,” Todd said.
Todd developed the Capstone Program for mechanical engineering students in 1990 and has used cars to teach his students for several years. The capstone project originally centered around a Mini Baja competition, but after BYU earned more first through fifth place finishes than any other university in the world, Todd decided it was time to move on to bigger and better things.
Formula cars came next, but Todd said he still didn’t feel like it was pushing his students enough. His students are now required to design and manufacture a hybrid formula car with parallel fuel and electric systems.
“It’s the most sophisticated challenge that I know of that students can take part in,” Todd said. “We don’t seem to learn much until we’re challenged.”
The team of 16 students logged over 7,500 hours of work as they met every morning six days a week starting in September, but in the end, all of their work came down to just 28 minutes of driving.
“We put so much time and effort into it,” said Hank Iroz, one of the four students that raced the car at the competition. “It didn’t seem like enough driving time for how much work we put into the car.”
The competition lasted four days and consisted of safety and engineering tests and three races. The teams competed in a timed acceleration over 75 meters, an agility course and an endurance race that tested the cars’ fuel efficiency and energy conservation.
Though short, the races were anything but dull. Drivers Norman and Jon Bevans both spun out during the endurance race because of wet track conditions.
“It was definitely a lot tougher to be on the track and keep the car straight with the conditions like they were,” Norman said. “It raised the stakes quite a bit.”
Norman hit a cone at one point in the race, which lodged under the front suspension of the car and was dragged the last few laps. According to him, he didn’t even realize it was there until after the race. Despite having two seconds deducted from their time for hitting a cone, BYU still finished in first place with a time just good enough to place them 3/1000 of a point ahead of Université de Sherbrooke.
After having put so much time and effort into this project, and considering it was Todd’s last year, the team expressed some emotions at the end.
“When we received that trophy it was like a load of bricks had been taken off our backs,” Iroz said. “And to send Dr. Todd out with an overall victory in his last year was icing on the cake.”
Todd may be retiring, but he shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
“Show off!” he yelled as Norman brought the car to a stop.
Todd took the helmet from him and climbed into the car. After revving the engine and adjusting his tie, Todd nodded to the crowd and took off weaving in and out of orange cones.