Deep within the Thayer Engineering School, the Dartmouth Formula Racing team is busy preparing its first entry ever for a four-day race car competition that will be held in May in the parking lot of the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Mich.
Cars from about 50 North American universities will face off at the event, which is part of the Society of Automotive Engineers Collegiate Design Series, said Jeff Buck '95, the team's founder and captain.
Cars will be judged on their design and performance, handling and acceleration and cost-efficiency, Buck said.
Although few Dartmouth students have heard of the team, members have been hard at work in their subterranean lair, holding meetings, planning fundraising and, of course, building their car.
There are 27 team members, ranging from students from the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration to engineering students to a studio air major.
Mike McNelis '96, the team's administrative leader, said the studio art major is fittingly in charge of designing the team's logo.
The cars are "single seat, open wheeled mini formula cars," according to a society brochure.
The team intends to finish construction by Feb. 1, Buck said. The car will be tested, reworked and retested during the following months.
Four students will share duties behind the wheel at the Detroit competition, and the others will act as the pit crew. Buck said drivers will be selected according to driving ability and size -- they must be able to fit inside the tiny, one-seat automobile.
Although competition officials do not enforce a spending cap, teams are expected to create a prototype that could be mass-produced, 1,000 at a time, for less than $8,000 each. Buck said the Tuck students will handle preparing and presenting this information.
Because the engine might explode during testing, students have been working with a safety official from the Thayer School, Buck said.
Although the project has received less attention than its older sibling -- the Thayer School's Solar Racing Team -- McNelis said it is beginning to attract more participants.
"People have gotten involved mostly by word of mouth," he said.
Buck said experience is neither necessary nor common.
"Most people involved are just race car enthusiasts," he said. "They know very little coming in, and learn by doing."
McNelis said he expects increased interest once the car is built and can be exhibited.
"There are a lot of really bright, motivated people," he said. "All we have to do is tap into it."
The experience has also allowed team members to become more involved with students at other schools working on similar projects.
Last week team members visited Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to gain expertise, Engine Team Leader Jeff Giberstein '95 said.
Buck said the Rensselaer students were very helpful.
"They were very sportsman-like," he said. "They really want first-year teams to go for it, and respect us for doing the competition."
The team is working on a variety of projects -- everything from creating brake lights and rear-view mirrors to redesigning safety equipment.
The team has been gaining steam ever since summer of 1994, when students created a Dartmouth chapter of the society.
This term, the team has attracted many new members and has earned faculty support, Buck said. Thus far, Thayer School administrators have allowed 18 students to use their work on the car as credit toward a Bachelor of Engineering degree.
Giberstein is one of those students.
"I jumped on the chance as soon as I heard we were being permitted to work on the car," for credit, he said. "I thought it was a really neat challenge because there is no course about building a race car or working on a fuel injection system" at Dartmouth.
"We were doing stuff that no one here has extensive knowledge about," he said. "It was either we were going to figure it out or nobody was going to figure it out. That's what was exciting about it."
The team is soliciting contributions from many different sources to finance its car. Giberstein said the team has received donations from an oil company, two automotive parts manufacturers, Ford Motor Company, Everything But Anchovies and Sears in West Lebanon.