The College of Engineering
Driven To Succeed
Unprecedented Gift to Project Labs Aims to Help Student Race Teams Continue to Lap the Competition
By Emily Velasco
From rutted forest roads in Alabama to precise curving tracks in Germany, Cal Poly Pomona’s engineering students are making a worldwide name for themselves as they rack up wins in international racing and design competitions.
Each year, the student teams, Baja SAE and Formula SAE, are tasked with building a racing vehicle — Baja for off-road competition and Formula for Formula 1-style competition. They are judged by how well their vehicle performs on the track, but also on the quality of their car design and their ability to present their concepts to a panel of judges. It’s a system that encourages a holistic view of engineering, requiring both theoretical knowledge and real- world, hands-on experience.
Although they are competing against better-known teams with much larger budgets, Cal Poly Pomona’s squads routinely upstage their rivals on the national and international levels. The Formula team was the top U.S. finisher at an international competition in Germany in August, and the Baja team finished fourth at an international competition in April. Cliff Stover, faculty advisor to the teams, says the students are the key to their own success.
“We have dedicated students,” Stover says, seated behind a desk strewn with industry newsletters and paperwork. Outside his office, students periodically stick their heads through his doorway, anxiously waiting for a chance to sign up for the safety training classes that are a requirement before joining the team.
“Most of these kids work outside in industry part time and they know what hard work is.”
David Zimmerman, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student who will serve as the vehicle dynamics lead for the Formula team this year, agrees.
“It takes a particular sort of drive to commit yourself to something like this for a year,” says Zimmerman, now in his third year with the team. “The people I’ve worked with are the best I’ve met.”
Over the years, the program has produced alumni who now work for organizations that include SpaceX, Tesla, Halliburton, Chevron and Toyota Racing Development, Stover says.
“Because it simulates a real-world problem, I get people from all disciplines,” he says. “I had students from the art department who designed the nose cone on the car one year.”
Quinton Quintana, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student who is the design lead for the Baja team this year, says his three years with the team have taught him a lot.
“You can make mistakes now so you don’t make them later,” Quintana says. “It teaches you how to respect yourself, respect others, respect deadlines — and how to respect a budget. Money does play a large role in teams like this.”
Stover says it costs $30,000 to $40,000 each year to keep the lab running, most of that going toward materials and replacing tools.
“Things break. They really break when you have students using them. You could say it’s learn by breaking,” Stover jokes.
A recent gift of nearly $800,000 from engineering alumnus Ganpat Patel, and his wife, Manju, will ensure the students can continue to learn for many miles to come.
Patel initially was contacted by Engineering Dean Mahyar Amouzegar to be inducted into the Hall of Fame for his business success and contributions to society. After spending time with Amouzegar and hearing about the college’s goals and needs, Patel committed his support to the project labs.
Since then, Ganpat Patel has become a big fan of the teams, following their progress and sending them congratulations on their wins.
“It’s a good reflection of what people think a program like this is worth in teaching someone how to be an engineer,” Zimmerman says.
Quintana said it’s heartening to get that kind of support for the teams.
“We get a lot of feedback from our families. They don’t understand why we’re here until 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. or on weekends,” Quintana says. “[The Patels] believe in us and they believe in the program. I really want to thank Ganpat from the bottom of my heart.”