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May 8, 2024

Driven to succeed: SVSU’s Cardinal Formula Racing competing at Michigan International Speedway

Students around race car on stand

On a Tuesday evening in mid-April, about a dozen members of Saginaw Valley State University’s Cardinal Formula Racing team are gathered in the Scott L. Carmona Performance Lab on campus.

The frame of the car sits on a stand. Only one wheel is mounted. The engine is in place, but there’s no fuel tank or battery.

Team captain Sean McClary calls everyone to attention. By the end of the night, he says, he wants to be able to start the car and have it be movable.

It seems a tall order, but the team members don’t panic. They all have jobs to do, so they get down to them.

The team is heading to Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn for the Formula SAE Michigan event from Wednesday, May 8-Saturday, May 11. This annual competition challenges teams of undergraduate and graduate students to build an Indy-style race car — from conception through design, fabrication and development — and put it through various tests.

On the track, the team competes in five dynamic events:

  • Acceleration: Evaluations of the car’s ability to accelerate down a 75-meter straightaway, testing power and speed. 
  • Autocross: Evaluations of the car’s handling through a tightly wound course testing the car’s suspension and power. 
  • Endurance: 22-kilometer race with a mandatory driver change halfway through the race that forces the team to restart the car after the driver change. This event evaluates every aspect of the car and driver abilities.  
  • Efficiency: The evaluation of the car’s fuel economy, which is calculated during the endurance event.
  • Skid pad: The evaluation of the car’s cornering ability through a narrow figure-eight course, which tests the setup and balance of the suspension. 

Off the track, the car goes through a technical inspection and is evaluated on cost, engineering design and presentation. Given the size of SVSU’s team throughout the years – and the fact all the members are undergraduates – it’s remarkable what Cardinal Formula Racing has accomplished. 

Under the direction of Brooks Byam, professor of mechanical engineering, the team has racked up some noteworthy successes:

  • Fastest college race car in the world twice (2008, 2014).
  • Top 10 finish twice; top 20 finish six times overall.
  • Highest finish of exclusively undergraduate teams for five consecutive years.

Team captain Sean McClary, an electrical engineering major from Saginaw, said each year’s vehicle is built on knowledge gained at the previous year’s competition. After the race, which is the only SAE sanctioned event the team participates in, the students will take inventory, assess the performance and start planning for next year’s competition. Throughout the summer they will compete in select SCCA autocross races.

First, the team needs to get through the Brooklyn competition.

On that evening in April, McClary’s goals were met.

“The car did indeed come together, and we were invited to test it at Bosch's test track,” he said. “We went there on Saturday (May 4), where it performed great and we worked out a few issues before the competition.”

The Formula SAE Michigan competition will involve about 120 teams from colleges and universities around the world. While it’s a friendly competition, every team is there to prove itself. For the members of SVSU’s Cardinal Formula Racing, it’s an opportunity to stand out. Regardless of the results at Michigan International Speedway, the learning experience sets SVSU students apart from competitors in the work force.

Ed Tomczyk, a 2021 alumnus (mechanical engineering) and veteran of Cardinal Formula Racing, is serving as an industry advisor for the team. He said his experience on the team helped land jobs during college and after graduation. He is now a project manager and design engineer for RWC in Bay City.

McClary agrees. The Saginaw resident holds down a job at Nexteer while completing his studies. He said his work, educational and race team experiences are mutually beneficial.

“I take what I learn in industry and bring it here (to the team) and take what I learn here and apply it at work. This is a big thing. Having this experience means a lot in the job interview.”