RIT Baja Race Team competes at international meet with car built from spare parts

After car is impounded in customs, team builds another in three days with parts from fellow Baja competitors

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RIT Baja Racing participated in its first competition of the season in Brazil. Its car was unable to be released by Brazil Customs and the team had to work quickly to rebuild a new car from parts given to them by fellow competitors at the event. The Tubarao Branco (the white shark) heroically completed the four-hour endurance race.

The RIT Baja Racing team didn’t let the unexpected news of their car being impounded by Brazilian Customs officials at the port of Itapoá stop them from competing at SAE Baja Brazil this past week. Bureaucratic red tape and errors in critical shipping documentation left the team stranded and without its car.

But with parts, gears and equipment from at least five other Brazilian teams, RIT crossed the finish line in its first Baja off-road competition of the season that took place March 5–8, in the town of Piracicaba, about two hours northwest of Sáo Paulo.

“Brazil is one of the hardest countries in the world to import anything into,” said Marty Gordon, team adviser and associate professor of manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology in RIT’s College of Applied Science and Technology, who added that it would have cost close to $60,000 in fines and storage fees to bring the car into the country.

“But we still wouldn’t have had the car in time for the competition. So we said, ship it back to the U.S. and we’ll build a new car in three or four days,” he added laughing.

What began as a jest took more serious form as the seven team members pieced together a plan, and eventually a makeshift vehicle.

“We wanted to try everything possible before giving up, before going back,” said Taylor Clow, a second-year industrial design student and team member. Sitting with host-team Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, long-time friends and competitors before the event, Clow and his teammates saw a spare vehicle frame in a far corner of UFSC’s shop and the idea to build another car took shape. “We thought, 'That could work.'”

After some delays, brake issues and an engine that blew up, the RIT car took the field. Dubbed the B15 Tubarao Branco (the white shark), they passed the important inspection portion of the competition and lined up for the four-hour endurance race clocking one of the fastest lap times. It wasn’t enough to win the race, but crossing the finish line was equally important, said Clow.

“The most eye-opening aspect of this entire situation is being on the receiving end of a lot of support. It was awesome to see all of the Brazilian teams stepping up and giving us everything and anything we needed.”

RIT Racing had competed in South America before, the last time was in 2009, and it was the only U.S. representative among 70 racecars. This year was no different. RIT was the only foreign team out of 61 other teams from Brazil. RIT Racing had been planning the trip since the summer—building the car, acquiring funding for travel and finally shipping the car in mid-December to be sure it would arrive for the competition. They were to arrive a week early to re-assemble the car after its 5,000-mile trip across the south Atlantic.

“We didn’t want to tell anybody at that point that we didn’t have a car. It was pretty risky, right?” Gordon said. “But it was a way to show what RIT is all about—we never give up, we can persevere. Only this team would have ever come up with that idea and the fortitude to actually pull it off. It was an unusual study abroad. This couldn’t have been a better cultural exchange.”

Team members traveling to Brazil included Clow, Doug Botto, second-year mechanical engineering technology (MET) student and team manager for the international trip; Dan Aliberti, fourth-year MET; CJ Winegar, fifth-year MET; Dan Palmiter, fourth-year mechanical engineering (ME); CJ Barbera, third-year ME; and Maria Victoria Savka, a fourth-year fine arts major.

RIT Baja will continue its season with competitions in Alabama April 9–12, in Maryland May 7–10 and in Oregon May 27–30. Over the past several years, RIT Baja has hosted five U.S.-based Baja SAE competitions at the RIT Field House and Activities Center and at Hogback Hill Race Track in Palmyra, N.Y. The most recent competition was in 2013, with nearly 100 teams from around the world. The team expects to host another Baja World Championship in 2016.