It was the summer of 2021 and the competition was just days away. Rijen Shonka, a second-year grad student at Oregon State University, was helping prepare a car for an upcoming tournament in Las Vegas. The event was important and would determine where the team would place in that year’s rankings of Formula SAE, a 40-year-old racing and design competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Every year, 600 teams from more than 20 countries compete to design and build a Formula-style racing car that takes automotive innovation to a whole new level. The competitions, which showcase the latest in student engineering and ingenuity, are held in different places each year, attracting car manufacturers, race teams and, increasingly, aerospace companies looking for the next generation of talented young engineers.
None of the cars weighs more than 400 pounds, but while they’re small, they’re fiercely designed. One of the most successful teams is Global Formula Racing, or GFR, an internationally collaborative Formula SAE team that started in 2009 and comprises students from Oregon State University and Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University in Friedrichschafen, Germany. GFR was the first international collaborative within Formula SAE, and the transatlantic partnership has helped cement the team as a top contender year after year, with three No. 1 world rankings since its inception.
Shonka was eager to get to the track and start competing. But now, suddenly, there were problems. Just days before competition was set to begin, the wheels on the car, quite literally, started coming off when the bolts began to unscrew themselves. Shonka and his teammates got to work, stripping the car down to its bones and looking for problems. “I ripped it all apart, cleaned it out, put it back together,” the sandy-haired 24-year-old recalls.
But it didn’t end there. Every day of the week leading up to the tournament, something or another broke. Finally, the GFR team patched the car together and headed to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the temperatures hovered over 100 degrees, turning the tarmac into scorching bedrock. Thanks to some epoxy, a little duct tape and a whole lot of hard work, the car held together. And despite the early setback, the GFR team won anyway. That kind of last-minute improvisation and engineering know-how is a hallmark of the people who work on Formula SAE teams. “If we don’t finish it, the car doesn’t run,” says Shonka.
Companies are paying attention. Tesla recruiters were on hand that day in Las Vegas and were keen to see the results. The Formula SAE world has become a laboratory of sorts, churning out engineering students who will one day work not just on fast cars but the whole booming electric vehicle revolution, not to mention automated cars, drones, satellites, spaceships and all the inevitable transformations in clean energy. The feedback loop between university SAE teams and corporations has become so fluid that the world’s top manufacturers are active participants and sponsors of the competition, offering guidance, supplies and support. Last December, Tesla announced it would provide up to 1,000 free battery cells and discounted hardware to college SAE teams as a way to encourage innovation around electric cars, as well as an effective recruitment tool for the company. “The companies have come to know over the last several years that the students who are driven are the ones who are going to make great employees,” says Joe Piacenza, the faculty adviser for Oregon State’s GFR team (which is also known as Beaver Racing). “Doing this competition and ranking so high, there’s only one reason—and it’s that they’re really dedicated.”
Like many revolutions, this one began in the desert. During the 1970s, the Society of Automotive Engineers partnered with the lawnmower and engine manufacturing company Briggs & Stratton to create a vehicle engineering competition. Briggs & Stratton supplied an 8-horsepower engine to every vehicle and soon a Cannonball Run-style desert dune buggy race, the SAE Mini Baja, was underway, much to the delight of America’s college-age population. The competition soon blossomed to include dozens of schools, and while the sands of Mexico were plenty fun, the lure of hairpin turns on hard pavement beckoned. The first official Formula SAE event took place in a parking lot at the University of Texas in 1981. The cars, half-pint versions of the real Formula monsters, were fun and spunky but also light and fast.
Even without the internet, word quickly spread, and by the early 1980s the ad hoc racing circuit was expanding rapidly as students scoured torn and fading racing magazines for ideas and traded pictures of cars they liked. About 20 schools across the country were participating in the Formula SAE races by then, but the network was scattered and students often had trouble generating the kind of critical mass they needed to create a large-scale event.
That changed in 1991, when General Motors offered to host the competition. It was a generous move for the corporation but also a savvy one, and it foretold the advent of a relationship between universities and corporations that continues to this day. GM understood that the best, most committed engineers were also most likely to be Formula SAE fans. So rather than spending a small fortune and lots of time visiting campus job fairs around the country, the company brought the students to them. The first sanctioned race got underway over two days that year at the 4,000-acre Milford Proving Ground in Michigan, one of the biggest stretches of dead flat pavement in the world, where cars could spin-off on its 132 miles of roads without fear of hitting anything.
The Ford Motor Company hosted the next year’s event, followed by Chrysler the year after that, and the circuit soon exploded. In 1994, the three companies formed a consortium and moved the event to the then–crown jewel of NFL stadiums, the Pontiac Silverdome, with seats for more than 82,000 people. Europe was getting in on the action, too, founding its own student-led racing network called Formula Student. “It was getting to the stage where it was for the benefit of the whole automotive industry,” says Dean Case, a press officer for SRO Motorsports America and longtime FSAE advocate. By 2006, the circuit had grown so large—there were 130 entries for the Michigan event that year—that they established Formula SAE West.
But it was never just a race. From the beginning, Formula SAE oriented the competition around a set of metrics to reward cars that weren’t only fast as hell but also cost-effective, structurally sound and marketable—the ingredients that large firms demanded. Four decades later, those standards still hold. Winning teams dominate in both the “static” and “dynamic” elements of the competition. For the former, they must present a business plan and a detailed cost breakdown of materials that will pass muster with budget-conscious and consumer-driven companies competing for market share. A good designer can make a super-fast, ultralight car with huge amounts of carbon fiber instead of mild steel, but it’s going to cost more. But teams also have to perform well in a good old-fashioned 22-kilometer race, during which judges score them on everything from the car’s efficiency to its acceleration. Teams that strike the best overall balance—making fast, affordable and well-built cars on a hard deadline—win the day. “The premise here is not who can build a one-off prototype,” says Case. “It has to be something that is realistic.”
The premise here is not who can build a one-off prototype. It has to be something that is realistic.
For years, the quintessential American STEM universities snubbed Formula SAE, dismissing the competition as a mechanical engineering problem. But that changed in 2013 when the organization saw Elon Musk gazing at the stars and added electric cars to its racing roster. (A few years later, self-driving cars got themselves a ticket.) Suddenly, top-tier schools like MIT and Cal Tech, which had never before participated, began to express interest. Electric is now the fastest-growing class within Formula SAE. Today, the series acts as a huge hub for both professional and amateur racing networks across the world, with club racing, drag racing and road racing feeding into the larger ecosystem of professional teams and mass-market car companies eager for motivated engineering and racing talent. In Southern California alone there are 17 universities building SAE or Baja cars. “I don’t think anybody in the ’70s had any idea that these competitions would grow as large as they have,” says Case. “Now there are people building Formula and Baja cars around the world.”
One day recently, four 20-somethings huddled around a half-built car with a bright orange shell in the basement of Rogers Hall on the campus of one half of GFR’s home at Oregon State University, in Corvallis. The college, which sits in the flat farmlands of southern Oregon, is sandwiched in the rain shadow between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Winning races is still a goal, says Joe Piacenza, the faculty adviser, but the students he oversees are just as keen on tackling bigger issues. “The part that’s so innovative is that they’re helping to solve today’s problems for driverless vehicles,” adds Piacenza. It’s no wonder that so many students, engineering and otherwise, are keen to participate in the GFR project. Building any car is an achievement, but being a part of such an advanced creation gives them boasting rights in the real world. Team members refer to the cars they make as “rolling résumés” when they head out into the job market. “These are the car geeks,” says Case, “the ones who will do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
The students are making improvements on last year’s car, which they humbly dubbed “21 Orange,” but it’s a feat of engineering by any standard, student or otherwise. Resembling a Formula car in miniature, it boasts an array of features that would dazzle Michael Schumacher and Neil Armstrong alike. The car is all-wheel-drive and fully electric, with three layers of carbon fiber on the nose cone, capable of speeds of up to 130 mph. The driver is protected by a wraparound “crash structure” that can withstand a 1,000-pound impact from a distance of 6 feet. Each wheel has its own 40-horsepower motor that operates independently of the other three, giving the vehicle enhanced cornering ability and more subtle, precise control. With two cameras and a lidar (laser-sensing radar) system, it can also drive itself. And it doesn’t brake like a normal car. Instead, when pressure is eased on the throttle, the wheels start regenerating power, which slows them down. Several components are 3D printed.
In part because of these innovations, Formula SAE has become a kind of neutral testing ground for products and standards that ultimately find their way into the broader automotive community. “We’re kind of like Switzerland,” says Case. Typically, car companies design most of the industry’s broadly shared features—bolts and gears, historically, but now increasingly things like electric plugs—by committee. But before consumer companies adopt anything, the products go through rigorous on-the-ground testing during the Formula SAE competitions. “If you have a Chevy Volt, and your neighbor has a Nissan Leaf, and three doors down someone has a BMW AI, they can all plug into the same plot,” says Case. “That was an SAE-developed standard.”
And it’s not just an American phenomenon. Technologists the world over speak the same language, and so it is in the automotive industry. Marcel Dirschinger, a 22-year-old engineering student from Bavaria, arrived in Corvallis late last year after graduating from the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, OSU’s partner school in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Like many Germans, Dirschinger grew up surrounded by motorsports but only really got into Formula 1 racing at the suggestion of a high school friend. The idea that he would ever be able to participate on a team was a “pipe dream.” But after joining the German side of GFR, his dream started to seem a little more realistic. He studied hard in his engineering classes and worked harder as a team member and he soon found himself thriving. Deeply competitive by nature, he relished the challenge of making the fastest, lightest car possible. “I just couldn’t get enough of it,” he says. He joined the master’s program at OSU in the winter of 2022 as a teaching assistant and is now helping oversee the high-level design and construction of this year’s model. Dirschinger describes the work that he and his students are doing as “pushing the limits” of a car’s engineering. One day recently, in a classroom that doubles as an automotive shop, where wrenches and welding masks compete for attention with drawings and design plans, and the walls are plastered with racing decals and dozens of trophies, Dirschinger and several teammates took turns pointing out the car’s more advanced features. Right now, the team is working on ways to improve the vehicle’s “torque vectoring” abilities. By taking the motor out of the chassis and relocating the power sources in the wheels themselves, the car the team is devising is a pretty radical departure from your father’s souped-up Mustang.
As far back as the early 1990s, Formula SAE teams from overseas were attracting the attention of American companies. Alba Colon, who grew up in Puerto Rico, remembers struggling through a competition at the Milford Proving Ground in 1991 as part of a Puerto Rican team. The team didn’t do especially well, but Colon’s dedication and skill caught the eye of a couple of executives from General Motors, who offered her a job. After 23 years at GM, Colon is now the director of competition systems at Hendrick Motorsports, a NASCAR affiliate based in North Carolina. She attributes her professional success almost entirely to her participation in Formula SAE. In more recent years, SAE has become such an attractive thing to have on a résumé that students often choose schools precisely because of their SAE programs. “I owe everything in my career to SAE,” says Colon, who hasn’t missed a competition since the first one she attended as a competitor in 1991. Adds Case: “If you don’t have SAE on your résumé, you’re four years behind the curve.”
Michael Hilliker, a second-year grad student and Beaver driver, would agree. Hilliker, 25, was practically born into racing in the small town of 700 people where he grew up in the picturesque southwest corner of Montana. His brother, older by eight years, had always enjoyed go-karting, running one vehicle after another into the ground in the driveway of their rural home. When Hilliker was 5 years old, his parents bought him a Quarter Midget go-kart and entered him in a local competition. By the age of 10, he had graduated to a Bandolero, a sleek midway racing car that could reach speeds of up to 70 mph. It could be dangerous, but the safety equipment was good enough that even Hilliker’s mother signed off on it. By 15 he was clocking 90 mph in a Baby Grand, about half the size of a fully loaded NASCAR rig. Racing became an all-consuming passion, and in summer and winter he and his family would attend competitions all over the country, arranging schoolwork with accommodating teachers who were happy to fuel his dreams.
His parents owned a small business and his father, a self-taught machinist, repaired hydraulic cylinders for heavy farming equipment. Hilliker grew up watching his dad tool around in the shop and picked up tips along the way that would come in handy later on. When it came time to head off to college, Hilliker’s brother, who was also pursuing a racing career, urged him to attend a school with a Formula SAE club. Pretty soon he was headed off to Oregon State, one of the nation’s premier SAE schools. His freshman year he traveled with the team to Europe, and in 2019 he was part of the team that took second place overall in the German competition. These days, Hilliker works as the aerodynamic manufacturing lead on this year’s model and oversees 12 undergrads. When he graduates this summer, he hopes to return to the passion that set him off two decades ago, but with a twist born of his experience building the car. “My dreams of being a professional racer have turned into being a professional engineer,” he says, gazing admiringly at the half-built car taking shape in Rogers Hall.
In a time of economic uncertainty, the job market for engineers like Hilliker looks rosy. Unsurprisingly, there is a huge amount of crossover between automotive and aerospace. Dan Gurney’s All American Racers built hundreds of race cars in Southern California before pivoting to build aerospace components; today they are a big supplier to SpaceX and others. Swift Engineering built Indy and Formula 2000 cars for years before moving into the unmanned-drone market. Another small company with Formula SAE connections, called Motivo, developed an electric autonomous tractor. “The things you need for a successful aerospace company include aerodynamics and composites, and those are two core skill sets of modern-day race cars,” says Case. Whereas in the past mechanical engineering grads were most in demand, with the rise of electric and self-driving cars, electrical engineers are increasingly sought out. “The same problems that companies like Tesla and Rivian are trying to solve, these guys are working on,” says Piacenza, the Beaver Racing faculty adviser. The technology being developed has been put to other uses as well. A Portland plant is building solar panels for unhoused communities. “This is a spearhead for much larger programming,” says Piacenza, “so students can get the same quality of experience that the Formula team has gotten for a long time.”
The basement of Rogers Hall thrums with activity. In the room next door to the studio where this year’s model is being conceived, another group of students plays with computer drawings and discusses their latest engineering problems. A pyramid made of Red Bull cans stands on top of a refrigerator, a testament to the hours they spend working.
When she graduates in June, Katarina Rodak will head south to Irvine, California, where she has a job already lined up with electric car manufacturer Rivian. Rodak, 24, grew up just north of Corvallis, in Beaverton. Her mom is an accountant; her dad works in computers. In high school, through her involvement with a competitive business club, Rodak learned about an electric motorcycle company called Zero Motorcycles. Once she got to OSU, she changed her major from business to engineering and joined GFR when she heard that the team was building electric cars. Engineering taught her to think critically, and she says her experience with SAE “accelerated” her education and fueled her passion for tackling fossil- fuel dependency.
As Rodak looks at the creation she helped build, she sees the results of all her efforts contained in a single, sleek instrument of innovation, and it makes her hopeful for the challenges that are still ahead. “It’s a super-complex problem that we’re hopefully going to solve the next 20 years,” she says. “What if you lived in a world before electricity and everyone used candles, and you had the chance to help Edison?” she muses. “This is the brave new world. Who’s going to be the first over the finish line in terms of making that product that’s, like, fast and efficient and light and environmentally friendly?”
Judging by the passion and knowledge displayed by this Formula SAE team, it’s not hard to imagine it might be one of these bright lights.