THUNDER BAY — Not everyone gets to build a race car for a school project.
Members of Lakehead University’s Formula SAE team are in the midst of doing just that, preparing to bring their prototype to the highly regarded international SAE competition in Michigan in May.
Students say the experience goes far beyond a typical school project, offering invaluable hands-on experience and a potential ladder to jobs in the automotive industry — and often becoming an all-consuming passion that occupies many of their non-class hours.
While student drivers will race their small Formula-style car in Michigan, the SAE competition measures far more than just speed — factors like reliability and fuel efficiency account for more points overall.
“The idea is you want to start a business that’s going to create 3,000 of this car — so you want to make sure it’s cost-effective, reliable, easy to build,” explained assistant team captain Matthew Manten.
The race is broken into several parts, like auto cross, skid pad, endurance, and acceleration, designed to measure different elements of the vehicle’s performance.
A series of “static events” judges things like engineering practice, purposeful design, and build quality.
The competition’s focus on those factors, rather than simply having the fastest car, helps Lakehead stay competitive against teams from some of the world's most prestigious engineering schools, Manten said.
“It kind of keeps a level playing field — even if we don’t have the same budget as some of the big schools, we can still place well just by doing a really good job.”
While the team aims to compete with the best, Manten said they also recognizes the ferocious competition — and just how easily things can go wrong.
Last year, Lakehead’s entry failed to pass technical inspection and wasn’t able to race, while three years ago, the car made it to the track but was disqualified after a small piece of a front wing fell off.
“We have to be realistic — we’re up against teams from Germany that are sponsored by Audi and Bugatti and have hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding,” said Manten. “Our budget is about $15,000, so our goal is to build a really good car that’s extremely reliable. We hope we can place in the top 25, out of 120 teams.”
Work started in the summer, when students began meeting to assemble the team, breaking into subgroups focused on areas like the power train or chassis, and electing a captain, assistant captain, and chief engineer.
Up to 20 students in the fourth year of Lakehead’s mechanical engineering program can participate as members, earning academic credit, while other students volunteer.
“There isn’t really anybody above us telling us what to do, we just kind of figure it out,” said Manten.
That’s both liberating and a lot of work.
Beyond designing the car, students source materials, build it, test it, and seek sponsorships, relying on support from local businesses (donors can have their logos displayed on the car and are eligible for charitable tax receipts).
The build will cost around $13,000, while total costs, including attending the competition, will surpass $20,000.
Team captain Dalton Lamoureux called competing in the SAE event a dream he’s had since his first year.
He said the project helped him realize a passion for aerodynamics, leading him to consider pursuing a master's degree in aerospace science.
“Before this, I didn’t really have any opportunity to gain experience in that field,” he said. “This opened a lot of doors for me.”
Lamoureux spent late nights working on the car’s aerodynamics package, which Manten expects to be among the best at the competition.
He called that level of dedication typical for the team, driven by the excitement of applying what students have spent years learning.
“It becomes kind of the most important thing — school, you just have to get that done and out of the way, then you get back to the shop,” he said.
That dedication has the chance to pay off in more than just bragging rights. The competition is attended by major automotive industry players like Tesla, Ford, and GM, who bring cars and recruiters.
Lakehead’s team has set April 9 as its 90 per cent completion date. After that, they’ll focus on testing, racing the car around a university parking lot, hoping anything that’s going to break will do so before the competition.
The team’s progress can be followed through its website and its Instagram account @lufsae.