Baja 1000 EV dreams drive Colorado student engineers building racer in Aurora alley garage

AURORA — Colorado School of Mines engineering students are hurling themselves into what they see as the ultimate, relevant senior project: creating an electric vehicle burly enough to endure the Baja 1000 off-road race through unforgiving Mexican desert.

They want to accelerate a U.S. shift away from fossil fuels as climate warming intensifies.

“We’re going to fix a problem” by improving EVs as alternatives to gas-powered cars, said Titus Reed, 23, whose role on the 14-member CSM team includes driving.

No EV has completed the Baja 1000, one of the world’s toughest off-road races, famed as a proving ground for new vehicles — and also for shattering dreams. Beyond whale-sized rocky bumps and silt bogs, there’s no rest other than pit stops and Baja locals occasionally set traps that can turn $250,000 wonder racers into wrecks.

The Colorado students are exploring a core innovation: rather than waiting hours for battery recharging — a main reason why EV owners consume so much latte — they’ll pioneer a swap-out system using interchangeable battery packs to minimize delays.

Over the past few months, they’ve relied on email solicitations and cold calls to raise $50,000 and made useful motorsports connections with racing veterans at Fox Factory, which designs suspension components, and innovators at Panasonic, which is expanding its EV battery operations. The money’s still less than what they’ll need and, last week, the students were worrying whether they’ll manage to complete, much less win, the race in November.

But down a gravel alley past barking dogs in a borrowed Aurora garage, they’re devoting this summer to the challenge. They began by gutting a 2006 red Jeep Grand Cherokee, to serve as the “skin” around heavy suspension, including chromium-molybdenum steel axles and framing to support a family refrigerator-sized box of batteries. They envision a 7,000-pound machine capable of navigating four-foot bumps while sustaining an average speed of 80 miles per hour between multiple pit stops.

They’re juggling this work with other duties. For example, Reed must complete summer courses in thermodynamics, circuits and robot ethics.

The team includes six aspiring electrical engineers.

“A lot of us really believe in EVs and what they hold for the future,” said team leader Robert Schmidt, 30, a South Africa-born senior who grew up in Chicago and started his college education in community college until he qualified for scholarships to fund his studies at the Colorado School of Mines, the state’s most expensive public university, located in Golden.

“If we were to complete the Baja 1000, we’d get data on the parts we are using, and we could supply it to Tesla. That could really help them,” Schmidt said.

“Driving through some of the roughest terrain in the world is something they may not do. We’d be able to supply that.” And if Americans do indeed shift from gas-powered to battery-driven transport, he said, “we’ll be able to look back in 15 years and say ‘we were part of that.’”

Mechanic Brian Webster, owner of the garage, helps guide the work.

Colorado School of Mines seniors each year embark on projects designed to apply their engineering skills. The university supports each team with $2,500. Students are graded on the extent to which they build something that is unique and necessary.

“I was astounded,” said RMH Group Chief of Electrical Engineering Max Billington, an adjunct professor at Colorado School of Mines, who’d taught several of the students. He lauded their grassroots effort to do “what has to get done” as visionary.

“They see this as their future world, that the world has to go in this direction, that fossil-fuel driven vehicles are not the future for mankind,” Billington said.

Yet this is a longshot.

“It’s really hard to design a gasoline-power vehicle to complete the Baja 1000. And these students had zero money,” he said.

The context is “rising frustration” despite a societal “urgent need” to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, said Billington, who works on largescale military, educational and corporate projects where installation of EV vehicle charging stations is becoming a norm.

State and federal governments have been promoting networks of charging stations where drivers would wait several hours to recharge depleted batteries. Meanwhile, prices for EVs that rival gas-powered favorites for performance remain higher than what the bulk of U.S. consumers can afford — even with tax incentives — due to battery costs.

“We have the basic problem of the U.S. population living spread out, needing vehicles that can go 200 miles to 300 miles on a charge.  And the technology is not there yet. But a switchable battery? That’s probably a way we are going,” he said.

Colorado School of Mines administrators assigned Billington to serve as technical advisor for the students. He has visited their alley workspace, reckoning that, after installation of wheels and suspension, the vehicle will have to move to a larger garage. He’s emphasizing safety in how students will go about removing depleted batteries and connecting fully-charged replacements under difficult desert conditions.

“If we Americans are going to use vehicles to cross our continent, we have to have a way — similar to what we have now — of pulling a vehicle into a gas station and filling up and you are on your way,” Billington said. “A battery assembly that can be racked out of a car where a new fully-charged assembly can be inserted” holds potential, especially if companies can agree on standardized batteries and connectors, he said. “The idea would be that the depleted battery removed from a vehicle would go, not into a trash bin, but onto a rack where it would be re-charged by a Texaco.”

But real-world costs are bedeviling the students. Batteries alone likely will require more than $60,000.

Axles ordered from the East Coast haven’t arrived.

And the students want to be ready for test drives by Oct. 1 — perhaps inside the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Schmidt said.

“That’s public land, isn’t it?”

The Baja 1000 began in 1967. It attracts global attention with racing teams from dozens of countries competing and vehicle makers watching closely for innovations and insights to inform designs of the next greatest vehicles.

“Electric is on the way” and if an EV could complete the Baja 1000 “we would put it on the map,” said Baja 1000 marketing director Jim Ryan of SCORE (Southern California Off-road Racing Enthusiasts), which runs the event.

A few EV teams have entered, Ryan said. One group in 2018 completed the shorter Baja 500 race — but not within the 20-hour time cap.

The time cap for the Baja 1000 is expected to be 52 hours.

EV competitors have included teams with vast experience, Ryan said. “Others didn’t do their homework and calculated their battery longevity based on paved streets and as soon as they hit the silt beds they burned out.”

Re-charging batteries using generators, and swapping out depleted battery packs on the fly at pit stops set up on fragile desert terrain prone to erosion and ecologically ruinous fragmentation will require careful environmental planning as well.

“It is a lot to bite off at one time,” he said. “But everybody has got their goals.”

The students said they’re hoping to at least earn an A.

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