Behind the driver’s seat of the UMass Lowell River Hawk Racing team’s Formula One-style race car are two Red Bull energy drink cans, one attached to each side of the frame. They’re not part of a corporate sponsorship deal, nor are they there should the driver need a midrace pick-me-up. Rather, the empty cans are actually cost-effective engine components.
“They’re called catch cans,” explained junior mechanical engineering major Aaron Bouchard, president of River Hawk Racing, the student club that is UMass Lowell’s chapter of SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers). “If the coolant overflows, it can go into the can.”
When you’re building a race car from scratch on a strict budget to compete against 119 other schools from across North America in a Formula SAE competition, a little resourcefulness goes a long way.
River Hawk Racing headed to Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan, Monday, May 15, to compete in a Formula SAE competition for the first time since 2018. The four-day event caps a yearlong challenge to design and build a formula-style, open-wheel vehicle, a process that teaches students all aspects of the automotive industry, from research, manufacturing and testing to marketing, management and finances.
“It’s a valuable experience you can put on your résumé, and it proves you’re taking what you learned in the classroom and applying it to a project outside the classroom,” said Garrett Perry, the team’s chief engineer and Ashland, Massachusetts, native, who received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering Saturday, May 12.
As club president, Perry helped hold River Hawk Racing together during the pandemic when classes were virtual. Membership has rebounded to roughly 50 students this year, and at UMass Lowell’s Student Leadership Awards in April, the club won the “Rising River Hawks Award,” which recognizes a student organization that has demonstrated the greatest amount of growth and promise.
“It was important to us to get that recognition from the university,” said junior plastics engineering major Ryan Tangney, club vice president and powertrain lead for the project. “In addition to proving to ourselves that we could do it, we had to prove to the university that we are still worthy of putting their name on the car.”
The club’s revival comes as interest in Formula One racing has been surging in the United States, with attendance at races and viewership of televised events smashing records.
While River Hawk Racing is geared to mechanical engineering students, the team welcomes all, regardless of major. Advising the students is Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Assistant Teaching Professor Jonathan Perez de Alderete.
Psychology major Arshjot Kaur discovered the team as a first-year student and served as club secretary this year. Growing up in Westford, Massachusetts, Kaur watched NASCAR races on TV with her dad. She was happy to find a way to pursue her love of cars in college.
“I’ve created a lot of friendships, and I try to make it welcoming for other students,” said Kaur, whose duties include communicating with sponsors and keeping team members up-to-date through emails and announcements.
As a non-engineer, she has learned a lot by spending time at the garage on the university’s North Campus where the car was built.
“Everyone is supportive and willing to teach you,” said Kaur, who is among the dozen team members who headed to Michigan.
River Hawk Racing’s business team, led by junior marketing student Joe Dunn, is responsible for finances and sponsorship opportunities. The team raised more than $40,000 this year, with funding coming from sponsors such as the Gene Haas Foundation, Parker Hannifin, Autodesk, SolidWorks and CADSPARC. The team also receives support from the university, solicits crowdfunding and hosts car shows on campus that raise more than $1,000 each semester.
“A lot of effort goes into finding and connecting with sponsors,” said Dunn, who describes himself as a “big Formula One fan” who grew up in a “family of mechanics” in Littleton, Massachusetts. He sees his work with River Hawk Racing as a test drive for his ultimate goal – working in sales and marketing for a motorsports team.
“It’s a good opportunity to interact with people outside my major,” Dunn said. “It’s like working at a company where you communicate and collaborate with people in different fields and with different skill sets. The experience will be useful when I have a job in the real world.”
Two other members of the business team, junior Miles Oram, from Hamilton, and sophomore Liam Clancy, from Belchertown, Massachusetts, drove the race car at the Michigan event. They earned the privilege by winning time trials that the team held earlier this year at a local indoor go-kart racing facility.
“We figured that was the fairest way to do it,” Tangney said.
Besides socket wrenches and motor oil, team members brought their résumés to the competition in Michigan, where companies such as Tesla, Rivian, GM, Ford and SpaceX recruit future employees.
“A lot of what you learn in class is applied to what we do with the car,” said Bouchard, who hails from Peabody, Massachusetts. “You take a computer-aided design course, then you come here and use that software to design parts of the car. Then you’re actually making them and putting them on the car correctly.”
Tangney, the only plastics engineer on the team, used a 3D printer to create the car’s plastic air intake. The Attleboro, Massachusetts, native said River Hawk Racing has been “such a good motivator” for him academically.
“Everyone says, ‘When am I going to use Calc 3?’ or ‘What’s an integral for?’ And when we’re designing, you have to use those things,” he said. “It’s pivotal for me as a college student. I’m taking thermodynamics, which helps me with the design of the exhaust. Being able to apply that is really cool.”