10. How Texas A&M won this year’s Formula Hybrid competition

Texas A&M before their acceleration run at the 5th annual Formula Hybrid International Competition

As I wrote at the start of last week’s blog, Texas A&M taught everyone a lesson in preparation, planning and hard work at this year’s Formula Hybrid International Competition at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Texas A&M’s team was better prepared than any of their rivals and won convincingly. The team’s faculty advisor, Dr. Make McDermott, believes Texas A&M benefitted from taking a conservative approach.

“I think it was because of the design process that we used,” McDermott observed. “A lot of people are looking at the Formula Hybrid competition as a research activity. They’re trying to come up with a lot of high-tech stuff and their criteria for making decisions early in the design process is based entirely on performance. Our early decision criteria are based on performance, cost and schedule. We throw out a lot of high-tech ideas because we decide we can’t get them done on the schedule we’ve got.”

As reported in my blog #8 from last month, Texas A&M’s Formula Hybrid team is run as a senior design class. “It’s a one-year project for a design class with two semesters,” McDermott said. “We start in September and we don’t have a running car until the end of March. So it’s eight months and if you try to do a whole lot of new, high-tech stuff there’s too much schedule risk.

“If you’re doing a research project you typically don’t have the hard time constraints that building a race car does. We’ll take on one or two technical challenges each year if we can devote the manpower to it. But we don’t want to address five or six at one time.”

McDermott reiterated his philosophy is to select the project manager and then step back and stay out of micro managing the program. “The only leadership role I chose is the project manager. I choose the staff and let the students themselves design it and decide who’s going to be the crew chief.”

Texas A&M after their acceleration run at the 5th annual Formula Hybrid International Competition

He says he applies the same rule to the team’s at-the-track operations. “I try to let them make the technical decisions. I am an advisor, so I say you need to consider this and that. If they ask I’ll tell them what my opinion is. But ultimately, the decisions are theirs.”

Will Hiltebeitel was Texas A&M’s team leader this year. Hiltebeitel is studying mechanical engineering and graduates in December. One of his goals in attending Texas A&M was to work on the university’s Formula SAE team. Because the school’s subsequent  Formula Hybrid team is taught as a senior class he couldn’t be involved with the team until this year.

“I came to Texas A&M with the intent of being on the Formula SAE team,” Hiltebeitel explained. “The way it’s structured as a class it’s really meant for seniors. I had other classes I had to take so it’s difficult to get too involved with it if you’re not a senior. Last spring I spent some time with the guys who worked on the 2010 car and went to a couple of practice days and started to get warmed up for the fall.”

Hiltebeitel is a car guy who always wanted to make his career in the auto industry or racing. “I work on a lot of the fabrication stuff and I just enjoy working on cars,” he remarked. “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. My dad was into drag racing and he always encouraged me. I’ve always wanted to work for an OEM or a race team so it’s great being able to talk to companies like GM, Chrysler and Ford and see that some of the race teams like Joe Gibbs Racing are recruiting from Formula SAE. That’s part of the appeal and part of what draws me to the competition.

“We’re under competitive pressure and we really want to win. We try hard and it’s a lot of fun. We try to do what we can and we learn a heck of a lot. We learned how far behind we were and how much more work we could have gotten done. It’s definitely a great learning experience.”

Like many students who take part in the Formula SAE and Formula Hybrid competitions Hiltebeitel hopes to find a job working as a development engineer for one of the country’s major automobile manufacturers.

“I have a friend who was a project manager on our 2008 Formula SAE team and he’s working now for GM in their manual transmission development department. I think he’s probably the archetype for me of what I want to be doing. He’s out there driving the new Camaros and new Corvettes and doing testing and trying to find the issues and come up with solutions and disseminate the information. I think that’s awesome. I couldn’t think of a better job than that.”

Other key members of this year’s Texas A&M team included Cole Easterling, Malcolm Stephenson, Brooks Tempel and Will Dixon. “Cole helped out a lot doing a lot of our machining and helped us with making realistic designs,” Hiltebeitel said. “He worked on the drivetrain and did some welding on the chassis and building differential mounts. We had a great welder this year in Malcolm Stephenson and we had a couple of really good guys, Brooks Tempel and Will Dixon, on our chassis team who really stepped it up. We had a good team all-round.

“Cole and I will be involved next year. We’re already scheming out things we can do better and systems where we can improve. We’re going to work on this a little bit over the summer. We’ve got some concepts and research projects to look at so we can have some better concepts to present to the class in the fall. We didn’t have anyone from last year on this year’s team, which made it hard to figure a lot of things out so we want to help that process for next year.”

Unlike most of their competitors Texas A&M prepared their car to pass swiftly through technical inspection by making a complete dummy inspection run a week before the competition.

Texas A&M gets ready to run the autocross event at the 5th annual Formula Hybrid International Competition

“We went through a couple of mock technical inspections at Texas A&M,” Hiltebeitel explained. “We went through the tech sheet and said this is where we’re deficient. We need to fix this or that. Then, less than a week before the competition, we had a final mock tech inspection. We set an ultimatum. We said if we don’t pass our mock tech inspection then we don’t do the competition.”

A late decision to change a recalcitrant, purpose-built electric motor added to the workload. “That was a bit of a scare,” Hiltebeitel added. “We lost the electric motor we were intending on using and we had to make a lot of modifications for the competition. But we came together and got things done and got the car running.

“We ended up having to reuse the PERM132 electric engine that we used in 2010 and the same controller because we had a custom-built electric motor that put out the same if not a little bit more horsepower and weighed substantially less. It made a huge difference. We used different controllers we had set it up for and were able to run more power. Our acceleration times were even faster with that motor. We had done some tuning for running the autocross and we could run a very quick time just on our electric motor alone within a couple of seconds with what we could do with our IC engine. So we were pretty pleased with that.

“But when we started testing we had a compound problem that sneaked up on us and it eliminated our custom electric motor. So we had to scramble with a week to go. The only thing we had was last year’s motor so we put the old control back in, rewired our battery pack and our accumulator, redid the wiring and put a structure on the rear of the car and mounted the electric motor and retrofitted our one-way clutch onto the PERM to get it ready for tech.”

Hiltebeitel believes the key strengths of Texas A&M’s car was its light weight. The team’s 2009 car weighed 541 pounds and its 2010 car was heavier at 550 pounds, but this year’s was considerably lighter, tipping the scales at 441 pounds.

“We made a really big effort this year to drop a lot of weight,” he commented. “We were on schedule to be somewhere around 420 pounds before we had our mishap and had to go to our second-tier electric motor system. But we really focused on losing a lot of weight. We changed our wheels and tires which produced a lot of packaging problems. I think that was the main place where we saved a lot of weight and we just tried to keep the weight down in general.”

Texas A&M had always used thirteen inch wheels and tires since the team started competing in Formula SAE but this year they went to ten-inch wheels.

“We looked at the Formula SAE results in total,” Hiltebeitel remarked. “We said, ‘What’s working for them?’ Formula SAE cars are faster than Formula Hybrids and nine out of ten of them are running tiny, ten inch wheels. They’re really quick and they’re doing well on their economy score. With 450 cc engines they’re running similar economy to what we need to run and are definitely a lot faster cars. So we took some inspiration from that and it saved a bunch of unsprung weight.”

The other area where the team was able to reduce weight was putting its accumulator into a single box. “We reduced our accumulator from two boxes to one because the rules specify so much protection and so much conduit. We knew there was a lot of weight to be saved by putting everything into one box. So we did that and saved a bunch of weight.”

Texas A&M’s method of teaching Formula Hybrid as a senior class project means there’s a wholesale change each year in team members. Hiltebeitel says it took a lot of effort to get the entire team singing from the same sheet of music.

“We tried to work with what we had and tried to get a decent set up. We learned from a lot of the changes we made in testing and we had to work with the nature of it being a class rather than a club so it’s always new people. There are a few people who know what they need to do and what the processes are but most of the people don’t.

“So it was just trying to get everybody up to speed and working together. We really pushed to get everyone on board and get everything far enough along that we could actually test and find out what things broke so we could fix them.”

Hiltebeitel was delighted with the team’s two drivers, Thomas Schinderle and Daniel Records. “Our drivers were great,” Hiltebeitel declared. “That’s the one thing we were always focused on which was getting the drivers in the car and getting them comfortable. You can have the best car in the world but if it’s not comfortable to drive then it’s not going to perform to its potential.”

Schinderle had an impressive racing resume, including recent experience in Late Model stock cars. Records lacked Schinderle’s on-track experience but responded well to Schinderle’s speed and development skills.

“We were looking for drivers and we heard Thomas was interested in doing the program,” Hiltebeitel commented. “Our advisor said one of the things he was looking for in a driver was racing experience. Thomas had never autocrossed but he’s a very good driver and provided really good feedback. He’s used to working with Late Models where you’re always making adjustments.

“He’s very sensitive so we could make a change in our shock damping and right away he would say this is better or worse. We could talk very easily with him and it made it very easy to communicate and make our setup better in a short period of time.

“Tom is a fast driver, but as soon as we got our new car running for this year he and Daniel were neck and neck. They were within a few tenths of each other on our practice days. Daniel drove last year as well and he brought the experience from previous competitions of what we could expect and what the courses would be like.”

As he said a few weeks ago in my blog #8, team advisor McDermott emphasized the importance having a fast, savvy driver. “I’m an old motorcycle racer and I think even more than cars that the rider plays a big part of it,” McDermott commented. “I was kind of a top third of the pack talent as a rider and after you’ve done that and see what the professionals and really good guys can do, it’s just amazing. You can’t really have an appreciation for it until you’ve tried it yourself.

“We have driver try-outs every year and I tell the students there are two ways you can qualify for driver try-outs. One, you can put in enough work on the car that the team members feel like you’ve earned the chance to try-out. Two, you can qualify by a resume and that’s where Thomas qualified this year. He qualified as a driver with his resume before he’d done any work on the car. I said if somebody else is letting him race their Late Model and he’s racing with other people’s money, then he’s probably good enough to try-out for this team.

“When we have driver try-outs I tell those guys who have driven in the past that they have to come to driver try-outs. I want a benchmark for all the guys who think they can drive to compare their times to when they get out there. If there’s no benchmark then the fastest guy out there thinks he’s fast. But when somebody puts three seconds on you on a fifty second lap you begin to realize there’s more to this than you realize.”

Schinderle graduated last weekend with a degree in mechanical engineering and has landed a job with General Motors as a suspension development engineer. He starts work at GM on June 16th. “I’ll be working at General Motors’ technical center and test track in Detroit,” Schinderle said. “Hopefully, eventually I’ll be moving into their ride and handling group as a test driver. So I’m pretty excited.”

Schinderle started racing in go-karts when he was eight years old and raced karts regularly through middle school and high school. When he turned sixteen he moved into full-size cars, racing his family’s dirt modified, then driving a Late Model dirt car for a semi-professional team near his home in Sugarland, Texas, a suburb of Houston.

“During the summer I’d help out at the shop and then while I was in school I was able to just show up at the track and be able to drive. That’s given me a lot of experience, not only suspension-wise but driving-wise and being able to work with the team. I haven’t been racing this year because I’ve been so busy in school and working on the team.”

In addition to driving the car Schinderle worked on Texas A&M’s Formula Hybrid suspension team. “I was part of the suspension team. There were four or five of us and we had a big undertaking. We had a lot to make and customize. It was a ton of work but we had a blast doing it and we learned a ton. It was pretty funny how you would see us walking around with backpacks full of suspension books. We tried to learn as much as we could in a short amount of time.

“Working with a large team was really awesome,” Schinderle added. “A lot of us had never been a part of designing the nuts and bolts of the car. That’s what I found really interesting. As a driver I know how to respond to the car and to give feedback to the team about how it’s handling. But this year for me was more of learning about the theory behind the design and how that will affect the car’s handling. In that respect I was learning it backwards from everybody else because I know how the car handles and how to give feedback to the team. But this year I was learning the theory behind that and I really enjoyed it.”

The only problem Texas A&M ran into during the competition came in the autocross event where Daniel Records struggled momentarily with a stumbling power source. “Daniel had the short end in the competition,” Hiltebeitel said. “We had a little problem with our voltage system and he had to do his autocross run with the electric motor on. We hadn’t had time to really test it out very well so he ended up having some issues where it wasn’t predictable and that made it hard for him to put down a fast lap.”

Added McDermott: “I think his first lap in the autocross event would have been the quickest time. He would have been quicker than Thomas but something happened and the car died for a couple of seconds. He had the presence of mind to hit the kill button and pull it back out. He was rolling down the hill off the banking and the car restarted but he lost a couple of seconds.”

Records also had to drive conservatively during his leg of the endurance event. “He’s a very good and consistent driver,” McDermott said. “But he did not get to drive fast in the endurance because we were concerned with fuel shortage. So he went out and set a fast lap so we knew how fast the course could be driven and then we dialed him back a few seconds a lap. No race driver likes to do that but he did it.”

Steady rain on the final day for the autocross and endurance events added to the challenge. “We definitely stayed conservative on our endurance run,” Hiltebeitel remarked. “We actually ran with too much fuel in the car and that really boiled down to the fact that we didn’t have a whole lot of testing and were pressed for time. With the rain we were looking at other teams’ times and we ended up running really conservatively on our first stint. We tried to go for it on our second stint but the rain made it difficult. But we did well and we’re pleased with that.”

Hiltebeitel and everyone involved with Texas A&M’s 2011 Formula Hybrid team should be proud of their accomplishment. It should help them find exciting and challenging jobs in the auto industry. For his part, Thomas Schinderle has found his dream job and also hopes to resume his racing career once he settles into his new job.

“I’ve got quite a few contacts in the Detroit area,” Schinderle said. “I’m going try to work with some of those teams and see if I can start racing up there. My goal is definitely to try to get with an established team and work with them.

“Of course, everybody’s goal is to be a race driver,” he added. “But being around racing so much I realize that it really is a money game. So I’ll do as much as I can. I’m trying to work as many angles as I can to hopefully get to the point where I put on a race suit for a living. That would be great. But I’ve got a great job with GM doing ride-handling and suspension engineering and hopefully quite a bit of test driving also.”

Formula Hybrid has served as a great launching pad for Thomas Schinderle and seems set to play a key role in the careers of many other aspiring young engineers. That’s precisely one of the competition’s primary goals.


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