From vacations to volunteering to internships all over the country, there are endless ways to spend summer as a university student. But if you’re one of the team leads on the Sooner Off-Road team, you’re certain to spend your break working on a durable yet lightweight all-terrain vehicle, gearing up for competition a year in advance.
The members of Sooner Off-Road spend each academic year designing and building an ATV from scratch to compete against over one hundred other groups from across the nation. The student-led team is responsible for every aspect of their car; from financing, to construction, and driving on a two-mile endurance track. Procrastination simply isn’t an option.
“Basically, we build a car from scratch,” says junior Matt Muhlinghause, one of the team leads. “There are several different aspects to competition, like suspension, maneuverability, and a wild-card event, like a tractor pull or a hill-climbing test.”
The competition, hosted by the Society for Automotive Engineers, ends with a four-hour endurance race on a dirt track littered with obstacles like large hills and logs.
Due to the intensity of the competition, experts examine cars before anyone can start their engines. Every detail is analyzed for safety down to the angles on the welded cage. Many teams–most teams–have something or other to fix. The Sooners passed on the first day, making them one of only 29 out of 110 to do so.
A thick handbook regulates the smallest details of construction, including the car’s shape, suspension, and wheels. “A lot of the rules pertain to what the frame has to look like in order to be structural and safe,” says senior and team leader, Evan Stone. “The car has to be able to roll over multiple times.”
“Biggest thing is the engine,” says senior Bryson Simer. “We all use the same ten-horsepower motor, so you’ve got to figure out how to get the most power out of that and how to be the fastest.”
The key to success for Sooner Off-Road is efficiency, and the most efficient cars are the ones designed to effectively blend weight and speed.
“It’s that happy medium,” says Muhlinghause. “You see some cars that are very light and fast but halfway through the course, something breaks. You want that perfect balance, being able to go fast but also being very durable.”
The team is made up of mostly mechanical engineering students but it’s not exclusive.
“One of the coolest things about these teams is you can come in with no knowledge,” says Muhlinghause. If someone simply has the desire and wants to learn some skills, many of which will extend beyond off-road racing, they are welcome to join.
“Basically, if you show up and show interest and you’re willing to put some work in, you can do well on this team,” adds Ricks.
On a larger scale, Sooner Off-Road gives students access to tools and knowledge that would be difficult to attain on their own, giving them a leg up on the competition when searching for jobs and internships.
One tool that Sooner Off-Road allows its team members to use is Solidworks, a design software which many companies look for when hiring. The license for individual use of the program can cost up to $5,000, but on the team it’s entirely free.
“A lot of companies are looking for that,” says Muhlinghause. “They want you to have knowledge of real-world applications on these design programs.”
While the group is always looking forward to the main competition, scheduled for May 2018, there’s a less formal event this coming September called Midnight Mayhem.
Midnight Mayhem is a six-hour race in Louisville, Kentucky, hosted by the University of Louisville, but it takes place from 8:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m., on a lit-up track. The cars are decked out in Christmas decoraction and neon lights, making for a quirky and vibrant event.
“This’ll be the first time that we go, because usually our car breaks at competition,” says Stone. “Our car did break this year, but it’s fixable.”
The bottom corner of the team’s workshop whiteboard reads, “Days Till Mayhem,” serving as the official countdown for the highly anticipated event.
The Sooner Off-Road team has done well in the last few years, finishing 36th overall out of 110 teams in 2017, but their goal remains to make the jump into the coveted top spots.
“There’s a big jump from the top-20 to the top-10 to the top-5,” says Muhlinghause. “It’s very hard to catch up to some of these teams who have been doing this for close to 40 years, but we’re improving and that’s our goal.”