The History of Formula SAE at the University of Texas at Austin

 SAE International, originally known as the Society of Automotive Engineers, is an organization seeking to further engineering professions and to address the development of technical standards in transport industries, including automotive, aerospace, and commercial vehicles.  Dating back to 1905, when various automobile manufacturers across the world teamed up to pool their resources and solve common problems that plagued their vehicles, SAE started off as only a handful of people and has since grown to encompass over 100,000 members worldwide.  In addition to their desire to advance established engineering fields, SAE also looks to the future generations of professionals by devoting time and resources to student programs in the STEM field.

One of those programs is Formula SAE.  In 1978, the concept of Formula SAE first came to fruition courtesy of Dr. Kurt M. Marshek at the University of Houston.  After having seen an article detailing how to make an Indy-style vehicle using wood and a five-horsepower engine, he created a contest where engineering students had to design and build a similar car, with each car using the same stock engine.  Thirteen schools entered and eleven competed in this first "mini-Indy", as it was known at the time, in 1979, and it was the University of Texas at El Paso who rose as the inaugural champions.

However, that one initial competition could have been the last.  A similar competition was proposed the following year, in 1980, but no concrete plans were ever formed. The future of the mini-Indy competition looked grim.

The University of Texas at Austin, though, saw the potential and wasn't about to let this idea fade away.  Three students - Mike Best, Robert Edwards, and John Tellkamp - teamed up with Dr. Ron Matthews to contact SAE and rekindle the mini-Indy concept, but from a different perspective: instead of adhering to the stricter set of original rules, they wanted a chance to make the car development as free as possible and to open up the option of engine development.  Therefore, students could use any four-stroke engine with a 25.4mm intake to design their racing car; the biggest stipulation is that they must keep their receipts to show that it didn't cost over a set amount.  Due to these new rule changes, the name Formula SAE was adopted as an indicator to separate this series from the Mini-Indy.

The ties between Formula SAE and UT Austin don’t end there, though.  In fact, it was UT Austin that hosted the Formula SAE competition each year from its revival until 1984, during which time they won the 1982 competition.  Starting in 1985, UT Arlington housed the competition and built upon the established rules to create the concept that students will recognize today: rather than build a pure racing car, students would design and then build a car for a very limited series production.  It was there that the competition remained until it was hosted by General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and then a combination of all three, which lasted until 2008.  Currently, Formula SAE is funded through sponsorships, donations, and the enrollment fees of the team.

Today, Formula SAE involves a kind of fictional situation where students are asked by a manufacturing company to make a small Formula-type car, where the only stipulations are that they stick to a set of rules and ensure on-track safety while also solving problems creatively.  Being students with limited skill sets, the rest of the rules are much less restrictive than those placed on, say, a Formula 1 team.  The final cars are evaluated for points at two different types of events: static, off-track events that include a business proposal; and the dynamic, on-track events, such as the endurance race.  Extra awards can be offered by the sponsors of each event based on which car possesses an especially striking design, such as finding an interesting and innovative way to craft electronic features.

FSAE doesn’t just focus on shaping future engineers; rather, it’s a rigorous process that involves many different groups of people working on many different tasks to simulate the reality of what it would be like working on an actual racing team in order to apply the skills they've learned in the classroom to real life situations.  Students tackle obvious problems such as research and design of their prototype car, but issues like marketing and fund-raising are both essential to ensuring that the necessary funds can be produced to actually create what they've envisioned.  All are integral pieces of the overall puzzle of running an efficient, effective team, and students learn how to work together on very different tasks to achieve a single, common goal.