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Race Cars All Revved Up at UML

By From the Lowell Sun

By Hiroko Sato

LOWELL -- Ask Casey LaCourse what it takes to design a race car, and he'll tell you it's not that different from drafting a fighter jet.

Safety and fuel economy don't matter as much as speed. From carbon fibers to custom-made aluminum, the cutting-edge materials can help make race cars lighter and faster, said LaCourse, a junior mechanical-engineering major at UMass Lowell.

And turning ideas into an actual high-performance race car has been a dream project for LaCourse and many of his friends, including Rob Riel, a sophomore electrical-engineering major, who loves "anything with wheels."

"They are all car nuts," John McKelliget, chairman of the UMass Lowell Mechanical Engineering Department, said with a laugh as he checks out the River Hawk 600 Mark II that the students built.

The end product isn't just the race car of their dreams, LaCourse said. It's a tangible way for them to show what they learn to high-school students who pose the frequently asked question: "What is mechanical engineering?"

With 250 hot rods, antique and collectors' vehicles in the background, the UMass Lowell River Hawk Racing team showed off its 2010 race car at the recent Big Thaw Car Show the group organized on campus.

Comprising 28 students mostly from the Mechanical Engineering Department, the team has designed and built River Hawk 600 Mark II over the past two years to compete with their counterparts from 120 other colleges in the Society of Automotive Engineers race, to be held in May at the Michigan International Speedway.

The low-rise go-cart-like race car has simple black frames, but figuring out how to shape the rods to make it run faster was anything but an easy task. The team, which also includes students from electrical engineering, business and other disciplines, used computers to design the car, then built it with their own hands -- then took it apart and put it together again to improve it over and over.

"It's not from a kit," McKelliget said. "They designed it from scratch."

The students organized the giant car show because they wanted to raise awareness about their work -- and because they need more funding to keep it going. Building the car cost about $30,000, but the budget goes up when taking the cost of traveling to the competition and other activities into consideration, said John Ting, dean of engineering at UMass Lowell.

The hands-on project excites the students and helps build team spirit, Ting said.

In addition, the competition, which requires contestants to simulate an industrial automotive production, gives the students a real-world challenge. In fact, engineering skills and the ability to apply the knowledge in real situations are two different things, said John Jeffrey, an environmental engineer from Bedford, who displayed his modified 1972 Datsun race car at the show.

"My question is weight balance," he said, examining River Hawk to see if the front and rear end of the car has a 50/50 balance of weight.

He offered to lend the students a special scale to address any problems.

"Very, very cool," Tom Ryan of Chepachet, R.I., said of River Hawk.

Ryan, who was showing a rugged, all-terrain vehicle he built from the parts of a 1988 Toyota pickup, said looking at the students' work and other people's cars inspires him.

The same goes with Marybeth Moriarty of Lowell, a graduate student in UMass Lowell's plastics-engineering program.

"I really wanted to see all the different types of cars," she said. "It's always fun to look at what other people are doing (with their cars). It's awesome that it's happening on campus."