Home Pandemic Tales A virtual race to the finish line

A virtual race to the finish line

by Devon Harvey

Ryerson racing student groups move their clubs and cars online

Ryerson University Baja team members Ariel Gil (left) and Marc Buono perform pre-race inspections of the powertrain components during the 2019 Baja SAE competition in Rochester, N.Y. (Courtesy Marek Serwin, Philip Martins)

The whirring of power tools, the screech of metal on metal, and rumbles of laughter contribute to the chaotic symphony reverberating through the workshop. The banter among teammates brings the loud, busy space to life. Sitting in the middle of it all, the project on everyone’s mind, is the car. A metaphoric sun, the centre of this small universe, pulling everyone together. 

Now, the shop is empty. All the noise abruptly stopped last March.  And more than a year later, all that is left is dusty equipment and abandoned, but not forgotten, car parts.

The new and disappointing reality for the Ryerson University Baja and Ryerson Formula Racing teams involves sitting at desks, attending Zoom meetings and working in solitude. The pandemic forced them out of their usual workspace in the affectionately nicknamed “dungeon” of Kerr Hall North and has kept them away for over a year. 

In a regular year, members of the Ryerson University Baja team would be building an off-road-ready car from the ground up, painstakingly designing, manufacturing and constructing it for a high-stakes international competition. This year there is no physical manufacturing, no testing, and no in-person competition. 

Instead, Philip Martins, captain of the team, had to move the traditionally hands-on group entirely online over a few short weeks.

“Everything’s turned upside down…we had no idea what was going to happen. All the work we put in over the last year is sort of up in the air,” says Martins, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student. 

Transitioning the club online meant hosting meetings over Zoom, using email as a primary mode of communication, and letting go of the project that meant the most to them — the car.

“Everybody’s on the team because they want to build it; they want to drive it,” says Martins. “So, it was kind of shitty.” 

Any other year, the team would be putting the final touches on their car for the Baja SAE competition, a highly anticipated event in which racers from across North America compete and push their vehicles to the limit.

Team member Marc Buono drives the Baja vehicle during the four-hour endurance race at the 2019 Baja SAE Competition in Rochester, N.Y. (Courtesy Marek Serwin, Philip Martins)

This year, however, the teams will be competing online through presentations about their car and its capabilities. 

The focus now is modelling their cars in 3D. As there is no in-person competition, detailed images of these models will be the stars of the show. Using design software from SolidWorks, they are creating highly detailed renderings, but the enormous file sizes make editing and collaborating a gruelling task. 

“It was definitely a difficult process to figure out,” says Martins. “What’s the best way to engage my team, what’s the best way to make sure I’m getting responses from everybody, or what’s the best way to make sure that the team knows what’s going on?”

Martins and his team started working on their car around the start of the 2020 fall semester. They have logged more than 200 hours of work to complete about 70 per cent of their designs, some of which still need work. Now, they spend hours on end working remotely, with their eyes trained on their screens, bodies huddled over their keyboards, painstakingly designing — and redesigning — more than 150 parts for their vehicle. 

Back in the dark, dusty basement of Kerr Hall North, the Ryerson Formula Racing team’s section of the workshop, which once saw countless hours of machining and designing, is also a deserted museum of abandoned power tools and car parts. 

The team, forced to adapt quickly to their online task, is treating the pandemic as an opportunity to do something different. 

“We’re actually working towards the design and eventual manufacturing of our first-ever electric vehicle,” says Erica Attard, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and captain of the team. “It actually came about only because of the COVID situation.”

A rendering of RF-20, the Ryerson Formula Racing team’s most recent combustion car, from their virtual unveiling (Courtesy George Stoyanov, Erica Attard)

According to Attard, designing and building an electric vehicle requires plenty of funds, resources and time. Since their in-person competition was cancelled, the group now has the necessary time and resources for what’s become a two-year project.

While students aren’t getting hands-on experience building their vehicles, virtual co-operation still offers them a learning opportunity. 

The club has implemented a “ready-to-race” program designed to teach incoming members everything they need to know about the car and the team. “We really tried to make learning virtual and not miss the opportunity to teach both our new members and current leads,” Attard says.

Similarly, the Ryerson University Baja team is also focused on providing a learning experience for its members: “One thing I focus on is teaching them and helping them learn; helping them understand how a team works,” says Zyam Dewan, the powertrain lead for the team. Students learn the value of teamwork, the importance of deadlines, and vital communication skills. 

It may be a virtual creation, but both teams have still managed to focus on what is dearest to them – the car. 

“As easy as it would be to just stop and use COVID as an excuse, I think we’ve all taken it really well,” Martins says. “I’m really happy with this team, really proud of this team.” 

The author of this article was the social media and marketing lead for the Ryerson Formula Racing team from June 2020 to October 2020.

Devon Harvey
This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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