In a shop filled with motors, airplane models and parts in numbered ziplock bags, Alejandro Hernandez attaches brake lines to the front of the frame of a hybrid car.
“If we’re going to fire (the engine), we need brakes,” Hernandez says as he gives instructions to the six people standing around the car. “We need all the people we can get because it’s a lengthy process.”
The vehicle, called the FH3, is a gas- and electric-powered car built entirely by UC Davis students. Hernandez is the team captain of UC Davis Formula Hybrid, a team of about 20 people who regularly work long hours to design and build the car.
Although the team is just three years old, it is good. UCD has placed in the top five in the New Hampshire Motor Speedway annual Formula Hybrid competition against at least 20 schools in each competition. Last year, the team also competed in a special race celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500. The race included top teams from the New Hampshire competition just days earlier.
Between April 30 and May 3, during the heart of the students’ midterm season, members of the team will return to New Hampshire Motor Speedway to compete in a series of design, business and race competitions.
“A normal competition day you’re up at 5 a.m. and you won’t go to bed till midnight,” Hernandez says. “That’s if your car works.”
Cars must first pass inspections before participating in races. If a car is having trouble, the team will work through the night to try to get it running for the next day of competitions.
“Inspections are brutal,” Hernandez says. “You don’t sleep much at competition. You live in the pit and become buddies with everyone because you see the look on their faces.”
It’s a look of stress — something Hernandez finds exciting in his work. “I love the stress,” he says.
The race competitions begin with 8 a.m.-noon sprints on the raceway. There are two different types of sprints and teams get two chances to do each sprint. The best sprint time is recorded.
Last year, Texas A&M University was the only school to complete inspections in time to finish all the sprints. UCD’s car entered the track at 11:57 a.m. and completed one sprint before the track closed.
“At that point, only two cars had actually turned on,” Hernandez remembers.
The second major part of the competition consists of a 20-lap endurance test that must be completed with a limited amount of fuel.
“The trend you see in this competition is, the better you place in that, the better you place in the competition,” Hernandez explains. The 20-lap test can be completed twice with two different drivers.
“Righty tighty, lefty loosey,” Hernandez tells Jeff Ware, who looks confused as he tries to attach part of the motor to the car frame.
Points are also given for vehicle design and business presentations.
Although the College of Engineering Machine Shop, affectionately called “The Student Shop,” closes at 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, Hernandez was up until 2:30 a.m. one recent day, working on the car engine in a different room. He wanted the engine to be ready to attach to the car frame.
As Hernandez talks, a student grabs a red backpack and heads for class. Many of the students who work on the car put in 15 to 20 hours a week during breaks between classes. They are not paid for their work. They work because they love the problem-solving, the real-world engineering experience and the car.
This year the team is running on a reduced budget. Its goal was to raise $40,000, and they need at least $25,000 to cover costs, says Sean Fountain, a mechanical engineering student who works as the team electrical lead.
So far, the team has received $11,000 in monetary donations and $8,000 worth of parts.
Hernandez is charging the $2,400 in gas money needed to transport the car to Loudon, N.H., to his personal credit card, Fountain says. The captain already has spent a few thousand dollars out of pocket for car parts.
“We already have the money to reimburse him for that, but that’s it,” Fountain says.
The team is sending 12 students to the competition and each team member will spend about $400 on plane tickets and a shared room.
“We’re trying to make it to the $25,000 mark. We’re trying to raise another $6,000,” Fountain says.
In the machine room, Alejandro Zamora, a fourth-year mechanical engineer, cuts a piece of steel that will be used to attach the 50-pound Honda dirt bike engine to the frame of the car. Metal shavings litter the floor. Zamora is a part fabricator, or a part maker.
“We give him a big block of metal and say ‘this is what it needs to look like,’ ” Hernandez says.
The piece Zamora is cutting took a month and a half to design, and probably will take five hours to cut.
“Seeing all the individual work come together in a car — that’s what I like,” Zamora says. He works in the shop every day except Monday and spends about 20 to 25 hours here each week.
In the other room, next to the car, David Liu, 21, is turning the steering wheel and watching the movement of the vehicle’s front wheels.
“Right now you can see it turns left more than it turns right,” he explains. The fourth-year mechanical engineer spends about 14 hours a week in the shop.
“I really didn’t have any engineering experience before this and this helps for résumés and cover letters,” he says.
Liu recently learned how to use the Student Shop machines to make a metal triangular mount for one of the vehicle lights. The process took him three to four hours, longer than it would have taken a fabricating expert like Zamora, but Liu considered it a good learning process.
Through the rolled-up shop door, the greenhouse at the top of the UC Davis Sciences Laboratory Building glows orange against a dark sky.
The shop will be closing soon, but members of the team will be here at 9 a.m. Saturday to continue the work.
“If we lose, it’s my fault; if we win, it’s all of them. That’s just how it is,” Hernandez says. “It’s all these guys that are going to make that possible.”