Temple Formula Racing Hits the Road

It's a long journey to make it to the team's leap in the rankings.

A half-dozen students fly around the entrance of the Temple College of Engineering the first Friday of June. School ended in May but their work is entering the stretch run. A peek around a corner shows their labor of love for almost a year.

Temple Formula Racing (TFR) holds court in the back room off the 12th Street Entrance to the College. The room seems sparse. There are tools, a computer on a desk, a few chairs. In the middle is the focal point: a car. Since August, the group led by mechanical engineering major Jonathan Petrina, Class of 2017, have been building this open-wheel vehicle. The team traveled this June for a collegiate competition to showcase their end product and the process to create it.

While NASCAR has taken over American motor racing, open-wheel cars are still the global preference. Millions attend Formula 1 events around the world, as the circuit attempts to stage a race in the U.S. Handling and precision control trump the pure speed and power featured in stock cars. This year’s Temple Formula Racing team built their model in this vein, as they have for more than 30 years. 

Temple displayed their car at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) event in Lincoln, Nebraska this June. Jon Petrina, a senior mechanical engineering major, discussed the multi-faceted event, where the racing almost seems like an afterthought. “It’s more than just the car, we are basically a mock company bringing a product to market. We have to design and build the prototype race car and go through all types of events, ranging from marketing and promotion to entice sponsors and investors in the company, to a cost report where we’ll be audited down to nuts and bolts. How much it costs to turn each nut will be accounted for, throughout the entire vehicle. From there, we go through Temple Formula Racinga technical inspection, to verify everything works and is properly engineered. After that, we have dynamic events, including skid pad, acceleration, brake pads, auto cross, and an endurance race. These are the events where you get to see how your car stacks up against other schools.” Petrina noted this is the first year TFR will compete at this particular event, a smaller one than the school usually attends (the event where they normally compete conflicted with finals). Temple was one of 80 national colleges at this year’s event, including some international.

While the competition will be tough, Petrina knows the focus is learning and seeing where your skills stack up to your peers. “It’s competitive, but it’s not a cutthroat event where everyone’s out to get each other. We help each other out. If some team fails, we’ll usually help them with parts and tools to get them running.”

The process to bring this car to life was a group effort with a dozen College of Engineering students pouring thousands of hours of labor into this project. Participants are members of the student group, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), made up of predominantly undergrads, with just one senior and one graduate student. This year’s car model relied more heavily on computer assistance, from design to diagnostics and testing. All their parts were built on-campus, a hands-on experience that gives the group an edge from other students, along with building close bonds with faculty. This year has seen more faculty involvement, which Petrina credits as a boost to the project. “We’ve been more organized. They’ve helped us stay on track. We’ve had questions in the past and we’ve said, ‘How can we get through this quickly?’ Now we say, let’s ask this person for their expertise.’ It gets us in the right direction.”

Dr. Richard Cohen, one of the most distinguished members of the College’s faculty, is the TFR advisor. The professor of mechanical engineering has been involved with the student organization SAE for 32 years, the length of his Temple tenure. His assistance ranges from finding parts, maintaining support from the Dean’s office, building schedules, to keeping the shop space and tools. He credits this team’s success to their earlier start and willingness to correct last year’s errors. The challenge for the teams is to design and engineer separately but end up with a cohesive designed body and engine. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. “Everything has to be done together. That doesn’t mean you have to do them all at the same time but they all have to fit and function on the car together. Accounting for where things have to be … before you build them, is a major problem. Everything has to be taken into consideration in the computer, in the same program, to make sure it will all works.” 

Managing expectations and encouraging more feasible solutions for the project is a role Dr. Cohen enjoys. “I try to keep them to engineering solutions that can be done in only one year. I try to avoid projects that we have no experience with. Build on what they know, rather than going back and throwing out everything that has been done before.” This year, the team found a fuel-injected engine within the framework instead of adding one to the body, as they have in prior models. 

The students have full reign to build as they choose and then bring their ideas to Dr. Cohen for feedback. This builds critical thinking, which helps the younger students address problems from various angles. His hope was that the team built enough togetherness to find success.

Previous years have seen Temple enter other events like Mini Baja in Florida, which involved all-terrain capabilities in the cage cars used in the Baja and other off-road rallies. Temple traditionally competed in SAE events held in Michigan, which saw involvement from the Big 3 automakers in the 1980s. These events took place in the shadow of the Pontiac Silverdome, the former home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions and hosted mega events like Super Bowl XVI. SAE’s Formula West event started in California before circumstances forced the event to find refuge in the heartland. 

Getting to Lincoln, Nebraska was one part of the trek. Despite the work, some teams can’t get  car their cars ready for the event. According to Dr. Cohen, almost half of the schools aren’t able to pass tech and compete. Strong cars often land in the top 30, with a chance to make the top 20 with excellent performances. 

The car is like a powerful go kart, operated by a Yamaha motorcycle engine. At two inches off the ground, it is certainly not street legal (nor would it be able to survive long on the pothole-riddled streets of Philadelphia). While the competition restrictions will keep the car from reaching its capability of 80 miles an hour, Petrina and his team have designed the car to maximize handling and control. “Not only can it go 80 miles per hour, it can go 80 around a corner.”

Showcasing their work is nothing new to the TFR team. In addition to the SAE events, Temple has displayed a car at the past three Philadelphia Auto Shows.

Much of engineering and science measures progress in small improvements but this year, TFR made a big step forward. For the first time since 2012, the car passed all inspections. The judges recalled the team’s previous struggles and congratulated them on getting past that phase. After years of failing the inspections, Petrina felt relieved. “It was nice being able to relax and not having to fix something on the car. Well, except that it was 120 degrees so we couldn’t really relax.” Dr. Cohen noted the team was prepared for the warm conditions. 

However, it was the prairie heat that proved to be the car’s undoing. The cooling system wasn’t prepared to handle the scorching conditions. Four laps into the endurance race, a wheel bearing began to wobble. The car failed and had to end its run. Temple wasn’t the only one to see that happen. Most of the 70 cars to start the endurance race failed to finish. In the overall competition, Temple finished 48th. 

Dr. Cohen was impressed with the team’s leap in the rankings and the overall progress amongst the group in this achievement. “They showed teamwork, they showed ability to get things done. Since many will be coming back next year, I have great expectations for them.” He believes continued success will help current students receive more attention from job recruiters and the College will be able to attract stronger candidates who can build on the existing success. The attention within the Philadelphia area will draw more interest and resources that would allow local students to attend summer workshops and get familiar with these challenges, something that would help as the school district looks to offer more hands-on career experience for students. 

The College of Engineering has tremendous talent and groups like TFR can help these students realize their potential, says Dr. Cohen. “These kinds of experiences gives them the confidence that they can do real engineering even as a sophomore or as a student who doesn’t always get A’s. Sometimes we get students who excel because they understand what engineering is and that they can design something tangible that can actually work.” 

- Marco Cerino