Penn College Baja SAE team excels at ‘home’ competition

Published 05.21.2024

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Pennsylvania College of Technology students reaped the benefits of their hands-on education and tireless dedication by finishing fourth out of 89 cars in the Baja SAE Williamsport endurance race, the international competition’s premier event.

The 13-member Penn College Baja team devoted several months and countless hours to designing, manufacturing and building a single-seat, all-terrain vehicle to survive various challenges, including the four-hour endurance event, a race featuring rugged terrain, obstacles, sharp turns, hills and lots of mud.

The fourth-place showing is the college’s 15th top-10 finish in the endurance race since 2011.

Michael J. Reed, president of Pennsylvania College of Technology, waves the checkered flag for the school’s entry in the Baja SAE Williamsport endurance race. Penn College finished fourth out of 89 cars in the challenging four-hour event. Marshall W. Fowler, of Sellersville, and Isaac H. Thollot, of Milford, shared driving duties for the college. The result was the15th top-10 showing for Penn College in the endurance race since 2011.

“I am very proud of the team and their performance,” said John G. Upcraft, instructor of manufacturing and machining and faculty adviser to Penn College’s Baja SAE club since its inception 19 years ago. “It’s difficult to put into words how hard they’ve worked to produce a car that proved to be one of the best in the competition. I truly believe the hands-on nature of our educational approach at Penn College allows our students to meet the high standard to be successful at Baja competitions.”

The students made about 95% of the car’s parts and components using the industry-standard resources of the Larry A. Ward Machining Technologies Center and the Gene Haas Center for Innovative Manufacturing.

“They devoted nights, weekends and school breaks to work on the car,” Upcraft said. “They sacrificed a great deal of personal time to make their car a reality. Their effort is very commendable.”

Penn College’s effort at Baja SAE Williamsport included two other top-10 finishes: fourth in suspension and traction and eighth in maneuverability. Overall, the team placed 10th out of the 102 teams competing. Those teams consisted of about 1,800 students representing colleges and universities from throughout the United States, Canada and Brazil.
“The team pulled it off. It’s not just one person. It takes an entire team to put this car together,” said Penn College captain Marshall W. Fowler, of Sellersville. “I’m super proud of how everybody worked to get us to this point, and I think it paid off.”

Despite starting 22nd in the endurance event, Penn College methodically maneuvered to be among the leaders about 90 minutes into the race. The driving duties were split between Fowler and Isaac H. Thollot, of Milford. Both Fowler (engineering design technology) and Thollot (manufacturing engineering technology) graduated earlier in May. Students are eligible to participate in Baja SAE for several months post-graduation.

“The design team knocked it out of the park with the endurance course. The obstacles were awesome. They were challenging,” Fowler said. “The mud pits in the lower section were causing everybody to get stuck. It was also a fast track, so everybody got to really test the full capability of their vehicles.”

Despite the track being built at Penn College’s Heavy Construction Equipment Operations Site in Brady Township, the “home” team couldn’t see the track until all participants converged at the location for Baja SAE Williamsport.

“Our students were dying to see the layout,” remarked Bradley M. Webb, dean of engineering technologies and one of the chief organizers of the competition. “I think it drove them crazy that it was only about 20 minutes from campus, yet they weren’t permitted at the site. Once they got on the track, we obviously were quite proud of their effort. The team’s performance is a testament to the quality of students we have at this college.”

Members of Pennsylvania College of Technology’s team celebrate their fourth-place finish in the four-hour endurance race at Baja SAE Williamsport. Fewer than half of the 89 cars that began the race completed more than 20 laps. Penn College registered 51 laps over the rugged 1.1-mile course. Baja SAE requires teams to design, manufacture and build a single-seat, all-terrain car to survive various tests.

Penn College’s performance in the endurance event reflected the car’s craftsmanship and durability. Fowler and Thollot combined to complete 51 laps in the race won by Virginia Tech. For perspective, 46 teams recorded fewer than 20 laps, and 24 teams didn’t manage 10 times around the treacherous track.

Penn College had its best lap time (3:44.813) on lap 48. Only one other team recorded its fastest lap that late in the race.
The fourth-place finish by Penn College bested the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa, Maryland, UCLA, UNLV, Oklahoma, RIT, Cornell, Alabama, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Clemson and Georgia Tech.

“The team learned from last fall when they finished ninth in endurance at Baja SAE Ohio,” Upcraft said. “They knew the car needed adjustments. They made the necessary changes, and now they can enjoy the rewards from that effort.”

Changes included a larger chassis to accommodate the car’s four-wheel-drive system, as well as a new front suspension and continuously variable transmission. The team also dropped the weight of the car from 394 pounds to 375 pounds and shifted the weight distribution from 51% bias in the front to 49%.

“We transferred the weight back to the rear and lightened up the front so the car wouldn’t nosedive when going off jumps,” Fowler explained.

About 30 minutes after the endurance race and with the car still caked in mud, the Penn College team had already turned its attention to the next competition, Baja SAE Michigan, scheduled for Sept. 11-14.

“We have a working car now,” Fowler said. “Hopefully over the summer, we can test a bunch of things and tune everything we want and come back strong for Michigan!”

“I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see the team do even better at Michigan,” Webb added. “They are a talented and determined bunch.”

In addition to Fowler and Thollot, other Penn College team members for Baja SAE Williamsport were manufacturing engineering technology students Nick J. Benninger, of Bloomsburg; Trevor J. Lindsay, of Mechanicsburg; Alec D. Rees, of Centerport, New York; and Brian P. Rogers, of Kunkletown. Engineering design technology majors were T.J. J. Bodei Jr., of Toms River, New Jersey; Casey B. Campbell, of Kennerdell; and Johnmichael S. Weaver, of Greenville. The team also included Leo W. Cooke, of Easton (automated manufacturing technology); Matthew J. Rotundo, of Abingdon, Maryland (applied management); Davis I. Rowell, of Boalsburg (heavy construction equipment technology: technician emphasis); and Jack J. Stump, of York, who graduated earlier this month with an associate degree in machine tool technology.

For more information on Penn College’s Baja SAE team and the full list of sponsors who generously supported the competition, visit the site.

For information on degrees offered by Penn College’s School of Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.

Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education. Email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222 for more information. 

Check out Penn College News for a photo gallery of Baja SAE Williamsport images.