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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Need for Speed: Spotlight on Dartmouth Formula Racing

Team members detail the challenges and excitement in building a competitive, formula-style race car.

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Grandma. Jessica. Cherri.

No, this isn’t the invite list for your next family dinner. These are the affectionately-coined names of the Dartmouth Formula Racing team’s race cars.

Founded in 1995 and based in the MacLean Engineering Sciences Center, the Dartmouth Formula Racing team designs, builds and races a formula-style race car that stars in an intercollegiate competition. Led by Captain Joe McInnis ’24, the team currently seeks to complete its first all-electric vehicle — Cherri — to compete in the SAE Formula Hybrid-Electric competition this spring. 

McInnis joined the team in 2020 as a first-year after seeing a campus-wide email from the team.

“I [first] thought, ‘Wow, that … must be for grad students, not for undergrads,’” he said. “[But then], I just thought, ‘I have to do this. It’s the coolest thing ever.’” 

DFR attracts more than just engineers. Business Manager Ethan Weinstein ’24 said that he isn’t involved in the build and design process but still found his place on the team, partly due to some encouragement from his brother and fellow team member, Max Weinstein ’24. 

“I became a big fan of F1 through the Netflix documentary [Drive to Survive],” he explained. “And I’m a math and [economics] major, so when [my brother] asked me if I’d be willing to step up and take over the [business manager] role … I agreed, and that’s what got me into it.”

In 2018 at the Formula Hybrid-Electric Competition, DFR won the FCA Industrial Design Award and the ICEE Engineering the Future Award, in addition to placing first in the Overall Hybrid Category. In 2019 at the same competition, the team placed second in the Overall Hybrid vehicle category and first in Dynamic Evaluation. 

Since then, the team has been working on building and competing an electric race car, according to McInnis. However, progress was impeded in previous years by COVID-19 because members of the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 graduated before their knowledge could be passed down to younger team members. 

“[DFR] is a project that relies so heavily on personal interaction to transfer the institutional knowledge from one year to the next,” he said. “So COVID was a big break in the chain because all the people who knew everything about the … car from a technical standpoint, but also about the team and how it operates and fundraises … graduated but didn’t have the chance to pass on that knowledge to the next generation.”

As a result of the disconnect, McInnis said the team had to both decipher previous years’ work and attempt to build upon it when they returned in-person in 2022. 

“It’s almost more difficult trying to reverse engineer something like this compared to just starting from scratch, but we didn’t have time to start from scratch,” McInnis said. 

But the effort invested in previous years is paying off now. 

“We’ve got a team of ’26s that really know the car and know what they liked and didn’t like about the previous way it was put together,” McInnis said. “We have this canvas that we can work on now and the manpower to get it done, so I think we’re gonna do it this year.” 

On the bright side, the process of reverse engineering has helped the team gain an intricate understanding of how they should build in the future, according to DFR mechanical lead Andrew Wilson ’26. 

“It’s a great way to learn,” Wilson said. “It’ll make building the next car a lot easier, since we know what works well and what doesn’t work well.”

The extensive process of building and designing a competition-ready race car makes cooperation paramount to the team’s success. McInnis explained that although the electrical and mechanical teams are separate on paper, they constantly communicate to ensure that the various parts of the car are able to work together in practice.

“You need to know, ‘Where am I going to route my wires?’ ‘What’s my low voltage system going to be?’ ‘Where’s that going to be mounted… physically on the car?’” McIninis said. “It may be even more of a communication test than an engineering test.”

Despite the challenges of building the car, team members are incredibly passionate about the process. 

Wilson explained that he loves the opportunity to “put the skills that you’re learning in the classroom to work on a fun project.” 

Additionally, according to McInnis because DFR aims to build as much of the car “in-house” as possible, team members have the unique opportunity to work on key components such as the car’s frame and suspension in the Thayer Machine Shop, colloquially known as the MShop. He called the hands-on component the highlight of his DFR experience.

“That’s my favorite part, getting to use the big [hydraulic] press,” he said. “Being in the Machine Shop, working on these parts, is awesome. And [the MShop staff is] super helpful.”

In addition to the MShop staff, the students from DFR receive guidance from their team advisors, such as Engineering professor Raina White and DFR alumnus Chuck Horrell ’00 TH ’01. As Horrell reflected on his time as a team member and leader, he emphasized that DFR is about much more than just the “technical aspects” of engineering a car.

“It taught me how to motivate other students, and how to make a group come together and work in unison,” he said. “Project management and inter-team dynamics — things I learned in that project — definitely helped me throughout my career [managing start-ups].”

The club also helps students develop their business skills. Weinstein said his role involves fundraising, which is an essential part of the club’s operation because Thayer School doesn’t provide direct funding for DFR.  According to Weinstein, sponsors such as the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation and Fay Sharpe LLP provide critical support for the team. 

Horrell also named Charles Nearburg, a member of the Thayer Board of Overseers, and Barry MacClean ’60 TH ’61 of MacLean-Fogg, an automotive company, as two people who have been “very generous” and “instrumental,” respectively. 

“We wouldn’t be here without the support of people like [Nearburg and MacLean],” Horrell said. 

This year, hopes are high for Cherri’s success, team members said. 

Weinstein said he is most excited to finally see the car driving at competition. Although the team had built a car in time for the 2023 competition, it didn’t meet certain regulations and could not compete, according to Weinstein. 

McInnis is also excited about the opportunity to talk to other teams about their design and building process this year.

“It’s a lot of fun to go around and talk to other teams and see what they’ve done and their different strategies for things like suspension and power trains, and since you’re… in [the competition as well], you can really directly compare to these guys and have a real conversation about it,” he said. 

Horrell spoke about the competition as the so-called “cherry on top” of a successful team project. 

“To win the competition or be in the top 10 is great — it’s fun to bring back trophies — but really I just want [DFR] to be this thing that continues to attract students that have this passion for … large-scale project engagement,” he said. “I want to see the program continue to be something that’s fun for students and continues to be really educational, and if we happen to get some trophies along the way, then that’s great.”