River Hawk Racing, Collegiate DECA Build Race Car for Formula SAE Competition

Business and engineering students pose with the River Hawk Racing car Image by Ed Brennen
River Hawk Racing president Kevin Nguyen and Collegiate DECA chief marketing officer Kelly Foley, center, are flanked by engineering and business students who are collaborating on a race car for a Formula SAE competition in June in Lincoln, Neb.

By Ed Brennen

Engineering student Kevin Nguyen needed some business know-how for his club, River Hawk Racing.

Business student Kelly Foley needed a tangible project for her club, Collegiate DECA.

So when Nguyen and team member Spencer Culpepper reached out to the Manning School of Business last summer seeking students interested in a collaboration, Foley seized the opportunity.

“All it took was one email to the business school,” says Nguyen, a senior mechanical engineering major and president of River Hawk Racing, the university’s chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

The clubs are now working together to build a race car that will compete next summer at Formula SAE, a collegiate engineering design competition hosted by SAE International. The River Hawks will travel to Lincoln, Neb., in June to compete against teams from 80 colleges and universities from around the world.

How can business students help engineering students build a race car? Not so much by working on what’s under the hood, but more by helping secure the sponsorship decals that go on the hood.

In Formula SAE, teams play the role of a startup design team that has been contracted by a manufacturing company to develop a small, single-seat race car that can reach speeds of around 60 mph. Students learn and develop not only the research, design, manufacturing and testing skills of the automotive industry, but also the marketing, management and finance skills.

Business and engineering students pose with the River Hawk Racing car from 2017 competition Image by Ed Brennen
Sitting in last year's Formula SAE race car, mechanical engineering student Spencer Culpepper is surrounded by teammates, from left, Andres Widhalm, Austin Gariepy, Evan Batterman, Zach Tenaglia, Brandon Vaz, Nicolas Valenti, Lucas Hansen, Vikrant Rao, Noah Torname, Brian Craven, Alex Van Overbeeke-Costello, Kelly Foley and Kevin Nguyen.

“Our biggest role is helping with a general business plan,” says Foley, a senior business administration major with concentrations in marketing and international business. “We might not understand everything they’re doing with the car, but we can help with cost analysis and any kind of financial planning.”

Foley is chief marketing officer for the campus chapter of Collegiate DECA, a national organization that prepares students for business careers and entrepreneurship through conferences and case-study competitions. The club had gone dormant at the Manning School of Business for a few years, but it was revived last spring by President Hanifa Nankinga and Vice President Drew Lambert.

Foley says the club, which has drawn interest from around 80 students and is registered for its first competition this December at Endicott College, was looking for ways to give members practical business experience. Leading the business project for River Hawk Racing, which includes building a marketing campaign and website and helping raise $30,000 in funding, fit the bill.

The competition’s cross-disciplinary approach was also a big draw.

“We’re usually surrounded by business majors, so it’s exciting to be able to branch out and work with someone not in your college on a project,” Foley says. “When you graduate, that’s the kind of thing you’re going to be doing – working with all areas of the business in a real company. It’s great experience for the real world.”

Like Collegiate DECA, River Hawk Racing is regaining its traction on campus. Founded in 2006 by students in the Francis College of Engineering, the club competed in Formula SAE events in 2008, ’10 and ’12. After a four-year pit stop, the club returned to the competition last May at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. While the River Hawks finished toward the back of the 120-team field, the experience convinced them that they could try again in 2018.

“Last time, our goal was getting there, and we made it happen,” says Nguyen, who was one of 10 students who traveled to Michigan. “None of us had previous experience; all we really had was our spirit and passion to make it work.”

Working in garage space at a nearby Shell gas station in Dracut (which is provided free of charge by one of the team’s sponsors, Nouria Energy Corporation), River Hawk Racing spent two years building the prototype race car that competed in Michigan. There, it was judged by automotive industry experts in two events: static (which includes the business proposal, manufacturing cost and technical design review) and dynamic (which includes acceleration, endurance and fuel economy).

“It’s a really demanding competition that takes a lot of commitment and thinking outside the box,” says Nguyen, whose club has about 20 members from various undergraduate and graduate engineering disciplines. “It shows that when you’re in the real world working in a startup company, you are comfortable stepping out of your comfort zone to solve problems.”

Students push the race car toward the garage Image by Ed Brennen
River Hawk Racing team members push last year's Formula SAE race car toward their Shell station garage space in Dracut.

And with automakers such as Tesla, Toyota, Ford and General Motors attending competitions to recruit future employees, Formula SAE is also a valuable networking opportunity for students.

River Hawk Racing is building a new car from scratch for the 2018 competition. As of early November, the team had raised $4,500 – with $2,200 of that immediately going to the event’s registration fee. The club will hold its annual fundraiser, the “Big Thaw” car show, in April on South Campus, where nearly 500 automobile owners and vendors pay $10 to attend. Beyond that, Foley says she hopes to include the project in online fundraising campaigns like "UML Days of Giving."

“We want to help them set fundraising milestones and find the right people to connect with,” Foley says.

When Nguyen got in touch with Foley about the project over the summer, they discovered they’d gone to high school together (Medford High, Class of 2014). That connection wasn’t the only reason Foley knew the clubs would complement each other well.

“When Kevin first came to us, he said we need to figure out how to get supplies from Point A to Point B. Our vice president, Drew Lambert, said, ‘It sounds like you need supply chain management,’” Foley recalls. “We’re connecting the dots for the engineers.”