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BE FITNESS │ SPORTS A Look at a World-Champion Formula SAE Team


Time froze for Bill Murray during the first run of the brake test. The car, which weighed 50 pounds less than any other team’s entry into the 2009 Formula SAE student competition in California, had already passed technical inspection. The next task was to lock all four wheels and stop the vehicle in a straight line at the end of a short acceleration run. It didn’t go as planned.


When the driver stopped, the car bounced several times, and then the entire suspension broke off its front end. The chassis was ripped apart; the car’s wheels were bent in. It wouldn’t even roll.


But then something exciting happened.


“The second it broke we went back to the pits,” Murray says. “There was maybe 5 minutes of shock, and disbelief, and every other team assumed we were out. Most people on the team were on the verge of tears. Then a couple of us looked around and started asking, ‘Can we fix this? Can we fix that? Ten minutes later the entire team was mobilized.”


The team on which Murray was competing is Oregon State University’s Global Formula Racing team. Each year SAE International (formerly Society of Automotive Engineers) organizes a design competition among collegiate teams around the world. Competitions are held in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, the UK, Italy and Germany.


Hundreds of teams compete. And every year they start by designing and building their cars from scratch.


Murray, a past team captain who is now a mechanical engineering graduate student and technical adviser to Oregon State University’s racing team, said coming together to fix the car was one of his most memorable experiences during his 7 year involvement with the team.


That’s saying a lot, because the team has had a lot of success as the world’s top-ranked team for the past two years. The genius that emerged that day was a combination of necessity, hard work, and trusting your teammates ‒ all of which make the team so special.


The experience also underscores the power of hands-on skill. That night the team bonded their car’s chassis back together. They twisted the suspension straight again and reinforced it. They worked all night in the hotel parking lot̶not much of a stretch for Murray and his teammates, who as a group spend tens of thousands of hours working on their competition cars.


The next morning they were the first team to go through the technical inspection again. They passed. Then they passed the brake test.


In the end, they won second in the overall competition, and placed second in design, second in business presentation, and first place in the endurance/fuel economy event. “We came back from a failure where everyone thought we were done,” Murray says. “It shows the character of our team and our students more than anything else.”


It was the character of the team that Oregon State University filmmaker Justin Smith sought to capture in his 2012 documentary, “Relentless,” which chronicles a year in the life of the Global Formula Racing team. Smith focused on the team during their pivotal 2011 season, when they were defending their 2010 world championship.


“I wanted to give people a day-to-day glimpse into the team and into Global Formula Racing,” Smith says. “These are people who live their lives as students and then spend countless hours devoted to the goal of winning these races. Thousands of hours of their lives boil down into whether they’re successful or not.”


Smith began documenting the team after they won Formula Student Germany event in 2010 ‒ the Germany event is widely acknowledged to be the premier event in the SAE Collegiate Design Series season. Winning effectively gives a team the bragging rights to call themselves the world champions.


“What I thought was so interesting about the team winning was that it flew under the radar so much in Oregon,” Smith says. “The team is known all over internationally but less so in the U.S.”


The tension in Smith’s film hinges on whether or not the GFR team can pull off a repeat performance in 2011. In some ways the team decided to replicate some of their successes ‒ they carried many of the concepts of their vehicle design into 2010 and 2011, including the philosophy that focuses on a lightweight, highly maneuverable, fuel-efficient car. They continued to receive material and parts donations from companies like Daimler, 3D Systems and ZF.


But what really transformed the team was formalizing the collaborative relationship with the team at DHBW-Ravensburg in Germany in 2010. That year, the two teams worked together to enter combustion and electric cars into competitions in the US and Europe.


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