By Anthony S. Casson
Inside the freshly paved confines of Michigan International Speedway during the biggest Formula SAE competition in the United States, students ignite the atmosphere.
First, it’s the mad dash to the registration line, then a madder dash to the technical inspection line the following day. Forty-eight hours of warm-up, car prep and scanning the field.
Oregon State University’s Global Formula Racing is one of the first teams through both lines. Their early-bird reputation is well known.
“We got here before you guys,” another team’s member said. He’s right.
But that would be their last time ahead. GFR members smile and move on — not cocky or condescending, but wowed that something aside from their winning cars attracts attention.
Static events kick Thursday off. The competition gets going. GFR starts early — Engineering Design, in which they answer judges’ questions about their car.
The night before, some members were reviewing their design portfolios; others were scrambling to put them together. Sleep or preparation? They wondered. Sleep can be preparation, especially when they have averaged four hours per night for the past month.
Later, officials announce GFR survived the elimination round. Nine others move with them, including some “usual suspects:” University of Stuttgart, University of Wisconsin, Technical University of Munich, the University of Michigan and others.
Veteran members expected it. GFR’s worst finish in Engineering Design in the previous few years was 11th at Formula Student (UK) last season. Things are going as planned. They’ll present again Friday in semifinals, then Saturday in finals, assuming they continue on course.
The team survives Cost, albeit receiving fewer points than they would have liked. Pricing a winning car isn’t easy in a field of 120 teams, each with varying resources and opportunity; GFR is competing to win, though, and Cost score isn’t a concern.
Three first-year GFR members take control of Business Presentation. It’s a skillful, energetic trio this year.
This is our car. This is why it’s great. This is why customers would buy it.
They receive a seventh-place award. The newbies are crushed. But the veterans smile: a top-10 finish is something to proud of.
Everyone begins thinking about the next two days — dynamic events. The night arrives; GFR meets as a group to talk updates and more preparation. Everything’s fine. No need to worry, yet.
GFR’s Autocross drivers are a potent duo. Matthias and Bill have been lighting up competition for a couple years. Bill’s on track first, taking a more conservative approach to his two available Autocross laps. He wrestles the car around the unusually quick course: quick time. He does it again: quicker time.
Matthias is the quicker driver. He and Bill studied and walked the course together, but he has always had a little something extra. Bill can control speed; Matthias can stop or go fast.
Matthias sets the fastest time of the day, and the team moves out, thinking GFR is bound for first.
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology came out of nowhere, and GFR missed it. They set a new fast time, bumping GFR to second.
Karlsruhe isn’t using wings during this competition, which usually puts teams at a disadvantage in terms of lap times. They also aren’t known for crashing parties.
An official comments about their surprise appearance. GFR members scratch their heads. Suddenly GFR and Stuttgart have company. The third-consecutive FSAE Michigan victory is under fire.
The team shows excitement when they are named one of three finalists for Engineering Design. They also see their favorite current rivals on the list: Stuttgart and Karlsruhe.
Everyone’s doing the math. Where does each team stand, and what does GFR need to win?
Some members forget they have won every competition since late 2009, in which they finished all dynamic events. Emotions are high. Everyone wants the win, also the history mark.
They let it play out.
There’s no worrying on Saturday, the final day of competition, at least for GFR. They have performed well, everyone has slept more than usual and the car is ready.
“My favorite competitions are the boring competitions,” veteran powertrain member Derek Duncan says, “because those are the ones when the car isn’t broken.”
They check and re-check the car. They talk to other teams. They wait for the final Engineering Design session and the dynamic events jewel: Endurance.
It’s Saturday. It’s win or lose.
The quiet, nonchalant members act like it’s no big deal, but their façades last a short while. Everyone cares.
Design presentations are private; the students are grilled about everything. GFR takes the victory; the team cheers and moves to the next task.
It’s exciting, but it’s not an overall victory. The veterans have grown a protective layer over their hearts and minds. Complacency kills.
Bill jumps in the car for the first stint in Endurance. He survives, setting fast times along the way. Matthias goes and sets more fast times.
Everyone else lines the fences, watching the car and its drivers. GFR just needs to finish. Leave it all on the track — no malfunctions to sway results.
They get their wish. Karlsruhe was quick too. Did we do enough?
The award ceremony comes and goes. A round of applause is missing this year when GFR accepts its victory trophies and prize money. It is, after all, three straight years the trophy will return to Corvallis.
Ask members if they would rather feel not hated and winless, or feel hated as a winner. They always choose the latter.
Now, GFR members are laughing and enjoying the victory celebration. They are truly relaxed for the first time in months.
GFR makes history and resumes their winning ways, with hunters lurking in the background waiting for the next competition.
They will carry on, work hard and think not about what others tell them — positive or otherwise — but about what they tell themselves. The results are clear.