The first year Coby Benheim ’19 and Gabe Weedon ’19 went to Michigan to race their car, it blew up.
“Our freshman year was a rough time,” said Weedon, a lead on the Brown Formula Racing Team. “The car was super late, and then it blew up and all the seniors were really angry about it.”
“We handled the car exploding pretty well,” said Benheim, one of the two team captains alongside Kayli Sarpu ’19. “But they were certainly upset.”
Now, with more experienced members, a top 30 finish at last year’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers event in Michigan and a redesigned car named Rhododendron, the team is more confident.
“We kind of just got confident over the past two years doing pretty well, and so we’re now trying to apply that confidence and see where we can take it,” Weedon said.
The formula racing team at Brown races underFSAE, an international body that organizes formula racing events for college student groups all over the world. Students are tasked with designing a car under specific engineering specifications over the course of the school year, and at the end of the year come together to race at tracks all over the country. Brown’s team competes every May at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan, where over 2,500 students competed last year.
Before the Michigan event, the team spends the year designing and building the car.
“Little of what we do is taught directly in class,” Benheim said. “One thing that’s very important to us is teaching people.”
The students “design everything, manufacture everything,” said Christopher Bull ’79 PhD ’06, senior lecturer and director of the Brown Design Workshop “I just run interference.”
Students learn how to use Computer Numeric Control lathes and mills to manufacture 3D parts with precision. They weld the chassis and design the car online using an industry standard program, SolidWorks. The team splits time between two locations, the Brown Design Workshop in the engineering building and Tockwotton Studios, an off-campus workshop where the final assembly of the car takes place. Different groups of students take the lead on different systems within the car. Some work on steering, others work on the body, wheels, suspension, powertrain or cooling.
Even first-years with little experience working on cars get involved. Keshav Persaud ’22 has been tasked with helping to build a chain guard and push bar. The chain guard restrains the chain in case it breaks, and the push bar allows the team to move the car without turning on the engine.
“Groups of (first-years) as well as upperclassman are here to assist (and) to teach us how to weld and to mill,” Persaud said. “It’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had at Brown so far.”
After a year of preparing and testing, the highlight of every season for the group is the trip to Michigan — a 14-hour drive where they bring the finished car with them in a trailer along with enough parts to weather any malfunctions over the week.
“We all drive together,” Weedon said. “We get motel rooms at the Super 8 and stay there five nights. It’s super stressful and fun. It’s early mornings and late nights. If things go well, it’s great. If things start going poorly it can turn into a super crazy mess, but it’s always great, no matter what.”
The competition is split into four different events. There is a drag race component that tests acceleration on a straight stretch of track — Brown’s car tops out in competition at speeds of around 60 miles per hour, but could top 90 according to Benheim. The skid pad event tests turning ability, and the slalom portion tests full-car control. The final event, endurance, calls for 13 laps at Michigan International with a driver change halfway through.
Aside from designing, assembling and racing a formula car, the team is also a hub for students from different concentrations and departments across campus. Being an engineer is by no means a prerequisite for joining the team, Benheim said.
“When I started freshman year I had absolutely no experience,” Weedon said. “We’ll teach you how to do anything. Most people think you need to know how cars work, but you really don’t at all.”
“I don’t even know how a car works,” Benheim added.
“It’s a labor of love, it’s a passion you have to make a sacrifice for,” Persaud said. “I love the people on the team.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Senior Lecturer and Director of the Brown Design Workshop is Chris Bolt. In fact, he is Christopher Bull ’79 PhD ’06. The Herald regrets the error.