Nathan Velez slapped down his helmet’s visor as the Honda motorcycle engine inches behind him barked to life, then goosed Osprey Racing team’s Swoopde9 into the coned-off parking lot-turned racecourse next to a dormitory.
The blue and white racecar isn’t headed to the Indy 500, but where its first weeks of testing take it in May is just as important to the 40 University of North Florida students and alumni who designed, built and drive it.
This ninth in Osprey Racing’s series of open-wheel single-seat racecars began design in 2019 to compete against the world at the 2020 Society of Automotive Engineers’ engineering competition. But COVID-19 lockdowns stalled completion and the international competition.
Now the team has completed the car to compete in May’s Formula SAE event at Michigan International Speedway. So after a final engine check, Velez roared off.
“It’s more insane than ever — the acceleration, the noise,” he said after a morning’s worth of test runs. “When you go full throttle, you hear everything. It’s almost like going straight tunnel vision, then you see the green light and shift up and you are on!”
From 2012:Meet the first Osprey Racing car to compete
Watching the bullet-shaped car’s hot laps, Osprey Racing President Nathan Stratton said it’s been a long year to wait. But the mechanical engineering student said they have a surprise come May.
“We are constructing our first aerodynamic package with big wings front and back and an engine cowl, all of the fancy, modern aerodynamics,” the sophomore said. “We have somebody who is an absolute genius designing our aero package, and we were told by the judges two years ago that we would never find anybody better.”
SAE competition began in 1979
The SAE competition started in 1979 to challenge student engineers to design, build and drive a racecar that can withstand technical inspection, racing and a 13-mile endurance run. The UNF team, as well as every university team competing, must also show experts how they conceived, designed, fabricated and tested their machines at Michigan International Speedway.
At the last competition in 2019, Osprey Racing came in 98th out of 108 competitors from as close as the University of Florida and U.S. Naval Academy, and as far away as the Universitat Stuttgart and Venezuela’s Universidad Simon Bolivar.
They came in 67th out of 114 competitors in the 2018 competition and 48th out of 129 in 2017, their best finish in the races that began in 2012.
That first Swoopde had a 70-horsepower Honda CBR motorcycle engine inside its 500-pound steel tube chassis. Donations of cash and equipment covered the first car’s $25,000 cost. This time Swoopde9 will go against 62 teams registered so far, four from other Florida universities as well as competitors from as far away as Canada, Singapore and Venezuela.
Dozens of donors both large and small, including The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, Fields Auto Group and APR Engineering, have helped over the years. The university’s Student Government donated about $10,000 this year, plus the team gained another $15,000 from in-kind donations, sponsorships and straight donations to also help with this year’s supplies, travel and lodging in Michigan.
Latest car took about $40,000 to build
The latest car has a lighter Honda CBR 600 RR motor from a 2011 motorcycle with 70 horsepower. It cost about $40,000 to build. With driver, it weighs about 650 pounds, although the wings and new additions could add up to 40 more, Stratton said.
“The benefit of that 4-cylinder versus something smaller is it lets us still have a lot of torque to work with,” Stratton said. “So with only four gears we can still make use of the displacement.”
Velez has competed for about a year in autocross in a modified Mazda Miata and his old Saab 92X, so he’s comfortable racing Swoopde9.
“Seeing my dream come true, living my dream and being in charge of a race team and seeing them focus is phenomenal,” he said. “It is a huge thing to come here to UNF and operate on their campus, giving us an amazing facility that’s big enough for us to operate.”
Stratton said the latest car is better engineered than the first, smaller with a chassis that’s “probably half the weight.” Velez admits that the year-long break in construction and testing due to COVID-19 helped.
“It gave us more time to prepare,” Velez said. “That’s judging by the fact that we are here now and not here three months ago shows we learned a lot, but we had to take our time from that.”
The benefits of designing and building a racecar every year for the SAE competition is a boon to any students seeking a career in automobile or engineering, Stratton said.
“The kind of engineering education we get doing hands-on is just something you don’t get in a normal four-year college degree unless you join a club like this,” he said.
As for their chances in May, Velez said he’s hoping for at least a 30th-place finish.
“I think we can achieve that, if not do better because of how much time and thought we have put into this car,” Velez said. “Once wings are implemented, we will see the changes. … We could even possibly go further.”
For information on Osprey Racing, go to facebook.com/unfsae/?ref=page_internal.
For information on the Formula SAE competition and event results, go to sae.org/attend/student-events/formula-sae-michigan.
Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549