Vanderbilt Motorsports senior is racing the clock

Senior Eric Bramlett (seated) and Vanderbilt Motorsports teammates are looking forward to international competition May 14-17 in Michigan. L-R, Kurt Rosolowsky, Abby Sheridan, Jason Stewart, Karen Chan, Chris Nash, Gabbey Tate, Zach Korman, Seth Schrage, Sean Cartwright, Ted Guevel, Tucker Kirven, Martin Bramlett and Phil Davis, adviser and staff engineer.

As Vanderbilt University engineering students race around Featheringill Hall working to complete undergraduate classes, a handful of them have scheduled time in a ground-floor shop. One in particular knows he’s on the last lap to getting a degree and he’s gunning to get back on a racetrack.

The Vanderbilt Motorsports Club works intensely and aggressively each year to get a car ready for the annual Formula SAE competition in Michigan. The FSAE competition – May 14-17 this year – is for Society of Automotive Engineers student members to conceive, design, fabricate, and compete with small formula-style racing cars.

With a well-designed lightweight car, major technological upgrades that include cameras and lasers, and the engineering school’s largest SAE collegiate chapter team – 25 students – to date this year, senior Eric Bramlett hopes the car will perform well.

Two years ago, Bramlett was one of three drivers when the team finished 88th out of 120 schools and universities at the Michigan International Speedway. The thrill he got climbing in and out of the car is one he wants to repeat.

“We made huge software advancements this year. We always engineer advancements from car to car [year to year]. This year we took it to a new level using software for suspension and steering validation,” Bramlett said.

The team has worked diligently under the watchful eye of adviser and staff engineer Phil Davis. “Basically, though, you have to figure it out on your own,” Bramlett said.

And, figure it out before the competition begins. The event is not so much a race, but rather an engineering design competition. For the purpose of the Formula SAE competition, teams are to assume that they work for a design firm that designs, fabricates, tests and demonstrates a prototype vehicle for the non-professional, weekend, competition market.

Teams are judged on everything from engineering design and cost analysis (static) to speed and fuel economy (dynamic), and more. ‘More’ includes meeting deadlines, staying within a budget, and presenting a business plan.

Once the car is completed and tested, the design firm attempts to ‘sell’ the design to a ‘corporation’ that is considering the production of a competition vehicle. The challenge to the design team is to develop a prototype car that best meets the FSAE vehicle design goals and one that can be profitably marketed

“This is a huge undertaking,” Davis said, “and it’s an international event. Our ‘design firm’ – Vanderbilt Motorsports – already has compiled an 800-page dossier ready for submission.”

Rules change each year, design spec sheets have to be kept, original parts crafted, tests made. In the competition, all students have to have a solid understanding of the car. Judges can, and do, ask questions of team members all the time.

“You have to be prepared to answer for what you did and what you know,” said Bramlett. “You need to know more than the judge.”

The team had a prototype ready for an outdoor test in November 2013 – the earliest ever test for a Vanderbilt car. “We had some engine problems in early December and we rebuilt it. Then we had to wait on parts,” said Davis, who targeted a late February date for car testing only to be pushed aside by nasty weather.

“Roadblocks happen in every project, but the competition begins May 14 regardless,” Davis said and smiled.

Now the team is chomping at the bit to get the car – which weighs only 360 pounds and reaches speeds of up to 80 mph – on a track, any track, for crucial testing.

Bramlett’s choice of track is in Michigan.