Building Speed: The Revival of Duke Motorsports

4/1/24 DukEngineer Magazine

A group of dedicated Duke Engineering undergraduates completely rebuild a racecar from the ground up after the pandemic stalled their club

a person with a driving helmet on sitting in a small race car
Building Speed: The Revival of Duke Motorsports

Each year in mid-May, hundreds of student racing teams from around the country and the world descend on Brooklyn, Michigan, home to Michigan International Speedway—one of NASCAR’s fastest and most infamous racetracks. Upon arrival, they unload their trailers in preparation for a three-day student race car engineering competition known as Formula SAE (FSAE) Michigan, swelling Brooklyn’s normal population from under 1400 to well over 2500.

The big idea? To race home-built, formula-style race cars capable of speeds of over 70 MPH in a battle against the clock…and each other.

The competition is organized by SAE International, formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers. The final showdown in Michigan is split between static events, like marketing and engineering design presentations judged by industry professionals, and driving events—namely the acceleration, skidpad, autocross, and endurance tests, which stretch the cars’ capabilities in different ways.

Josh Klinger ME’24 prepares for the driver egress safety test at the Formula South Invitational.

But the competition is just the final test of each team’s year-long effort. Prior to racing in Michigan, teams spend tens of thousands of hours over the summer and school year both designing and building their cars from the ground up.

You can find one of these teams, our very own Duke University Motorsports, working in a garage underneath Hudson Hall just about any day of the week, bringing lessons from the classroom onto the racetrack.

But making it to the race in Michigan is no simple task. With so many separate critical components required for the car to drive, let alone succeed in competition, team organization is paramount. “The team itself is broken up into different subsystems that each work on their specific area of the car,” explained the team’s president and senior mechanical engineering student, Connor Gregg. These subsystems range from Operations, which organizes sponsorship, funding, and team events, to Powertrain, responsible for the engine and drivetrain, to Vehicle Dynamics, which works on the suspension, wheels, and brakes. The Chassis, Aerodynamics, and Electrical Subsystems round out the team. Over the course of the year, more than 50 undergraduate engineers across all subsystems contribute to the race car.

“When I joined the team, I had never worked on cars before. I was not familiar with any of the car jargon. I really had no idea what was going on.”

Noah Falbaum
ME’24, Incoming Propulsion Engineer at SpaceX

In his current role as president, Gregg “builds the team.” As the team’s leader, Gregg interfaces with Duke, FSAE officials, and the Operations Subsystem to organize team logistics, events, and recruitment efforts. But he doesn’t lead alone—he is accompanied by chief engineer and fellow senior mechanical engineering student Noah Falbaum, who is responsible for the engineering design and technical development of the car.

You may think Falbaum, who can often be spotted around the garage with a ratchet in hand or workshopping components with team members in CAD, would have been a car junkie from birth, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. “When I joined the team, I had never worked on cars before. I was not familiar with any of the car jargon. I really had no idea what was going on,” he claimed. But, by spending nearly four years on the team, Falbaum has built up relevant skill sets in both engineering and leadership, allowing him to effectively direct the team in a technical capacity.

The team poses post-successful endurance run at the 2023 Michelin Formula SAE Shootout. Photo by George Delagrammatikas.

Falbaum’s story reflects the fact that working on the Motorsports team is one of the best ways a Duke engineer can get their hands dirty and truly engage in the engineering design process, even if it is unfamiliar to begin with. “The team is open to anyone and everyone who is interested in contributing, in any way,” said Falbaum.

In the fall semester, you can find experienced teammates giving weekly workshops on topics ranging from SolidWorks CAD modeling, to Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) or Finite Element Analysis (FEA) simulations, to vehicle kinematics principles, to using the waterjet cutters in the Co-Lab, all aimed at getting new members up to speed. But beyond the classroom-style instruction, most of these students’ skills are learned on the job, by iterating through the process of taking a component from the system requirements to a CAD design, validating the design, ensuring system compatibility, and manufacturing and installing that part. In practicing this process repeatedly in different projects over months or years, team members become uniquely prepared to enter the engineering workforce. “The team’s work is critically important in our students’ development into practicing engineers,” said George Delagrammatikas, a mechanical engineering professor of the practice and the team’s faculty advisor. “They are immersed in real-world design challenges whereby they compete on a national and international level against the best and the brightest.”

A man sitting in a small race car with a hat and sunglasses on pointing to the sky
Klinger and the 2023 car on their way to technical inspection at the Formula South Invitational. Photo by Tyler Russ.

Now, a new class of motorsports engineers have chosen their subsystems and are hard at work on Duke Motorsports’ 2024 challenger. But the team hasn’t always been so robust. In the Spring of 2020, when all Duke students were sent home due to the onset of the COVID–19 pandemic, the team languished. “Motorsports just didn’t exist for about six months,” said Gregg. The FSAE Michigan competition was canceled and all work halted as the world hit the pause button, only resuming once students returned to campus in the fall of 2020, in what would be Gregg and Falbaum’s first semester as students.

But the return to campus didn’t exactly leave the team firing on all cylinders. The preceding spring, the team lost a significant number of key contributors to graduation and team departures, and in the absence of team meetings, much of their key knowledge and expertise wasn’t passed down to the team’s younger members. To make matters worse, lingering COVID–19 restrictions prevented the team from meeting in person regularly and attending the Michigan competition for a second year in a row.

The 2022 competition season, while better, showed that there was still a long way to go. The lifting of pandemic restrictions meant that the team embarked on its first uninterrupted season in two years. But the challenges didn’t stop there. “We took that 2022 car to competition, but since none of us had ever been to a competition before…we really struggled to pass technical inspection and didn’t get to a point where we were able to drive. That was really tough, but also just an educational experience that pushed the team hard the next year,” said Falbaum.

“Every single component got redesigned from the ground up.”

Connor Gregg
ME ’24

Fueled by that disappointment, the 2023 season began what would be a major step forward in the trajectory of the team. In order to truly understand and improve the vehicle’s performance, the team went back to the drawing board. “Every single component got redesigned from the ground up,” said Gregg. Every major component of the car—from the chassis, to the suspension system, to the engine’s turbocharger—was fundamentally redesigned in what would become a monumental year-long effort.

The season concluded in Michigan with huge successes and yet more opportunities to improve. The team was among the first to pass technical inspection and completed all dynamic events save for the Endurance race, where the team experienced an unexpected fatigue failure in car’s front left wheel assembly, preventing them from collecting over 35% of the competition’s available points. Even so, Duke Motorsports managed to finish 59th out of 114 entrants, a welcome turnaround from the woes of 2022.

This fall, in the Michelin Formula SAE Shootout (a regional scrimmage), Duke Motorsports continued the upward trend, placing third among internal combustion teams from around the Southeast—a huge validation of the team’s effort and determination. “It was the first time the team made it through an endurance event since before COVID, and it was the product of basically three years of learning and a complete redesign to get us there,” said Falbaum.

But Duke motorsports isn’t pumping the brakes anytime soon. At FSAE Michigan 2024, the team hopes to put it all together with a competitive performance on the big stage. The first step in the process? A new design philosophy. “Where 2023 was a complete redesign of the vehicle, 2024 is an evolution,” noted Falbaum. By building on the complete design overhaul of the previous season, the team can now afford to make a smaller number of targeted improvements to the car, including a complete failure analysis and ground-up redesign of the faulty wheel assembly components of 2023. By redesigning more selectively, the team hopes to get the car driving earlier in the year, test more extensively, and ultimately arrive to Michigan even more prepared. “You need to make a car that can finish before you can finish fast, and in 2024 the team is finally ready to finish fast,” said Falbaum.

Drawing from years of trials, learning, and experience, the team is approaching the 2024 competition with an uncommon drive to succeed. But beyond the competitive spirit and love for racing, by taking class concepts and applying them on an international stage, the Motorsports team is exemplifying what it means to be a Duke engineer.

David Gorman is a junior studying mechanical engineering and minoring in economics.

2024 DukEngineer Magazine