Mechanical engineers know a little something about finding a workaround when presented with a problem.
That’s exactly what Pellissippi State graduate Christian Boone did in May 2017, when he paid $3,000 in tuition to the renowned Skip Barber Racing School – and the school filed for bankruptcy just weeks before he was set to arrive.
Not one to be deterred, the 23-year-old Knoxville native started looking for other ways to get motorsports experience on his resume while studying mechanical engineering.
“I’ve been following motorsports my whole life, which has helped me understand vehicle dynamics really well,” said Boone, who enrolled in Pellissippi State in fall 2014. “I’d always been naturally really fast in autocross, and I felt like this was what I wanted to do.”
What he found was Formula SAE. The Formula SAE series competitions, hosted by the Society of Automotive Engineers, challenge teams of university undergraduate and graduate students to conceive, design, fabricate, develop and compete with small, formula-style vehicles.
Boone had an idea: build a Formula SAE race car for competition and use the project to recruit more students into Mechanical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering Technology programs at Pellissippi State.
“I knew having our own race car would be the biggest recruiting tool because I knew it would draw passionate students,” explained Boone, who was a student at Pellissippi State at the time. “I made a PowerPoint, and I came here and pitched it to (Engineering Technology faculty) Lynn Klett and Mary Kozak in fall 2017, and they were all about it.”
His next step was pitching to Pellissippi State President L. Anthony Wise Jr., who told Boone to “go for it” and agreed to fund the team to get it off the ground.
And that’s how Boone found himself two Mays later en route to the Michigan International Speedway, where Pellissippi State Motorsports competed against 119 other teams at Formula SAE Michigan.
In fact, Pellissippi State was the only community college in the competition, which included teams from Austria, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Poland, Singapore, South Korea and Venezuela, in addition to those from the United States.
Pellissippi State Motorsports, a club comprised of both Pellissippi State and UT students, began working on its first race car in fall 2018, Boone’s first semester at UT. Boone recruited team members at both colleges.
Mechanical Engineering students like Boone did a bulk of the design on computers while Mechanical Engineering Technology students completed a lot of the hands-on work, like 3D printing molds for the car’s body panels and machining other parts.
“We designed it ourselves,” Boone stressed, noting competition rules require the race cars to be student designed with elements such as an open cockpit with an unobstructed view of the top 180 degrees of the wheels. “We were a small team at first. In fact, the majority of the first car was designed by two or three people.”
As Pellissippi State Motorsports recruited others to join their project, the students broke into subteams:
- Drivetrain (transmission, axles, etc.)
- Powertrain (engine, exhaust, etc.)
- Wheel assembly
Every Wednesday evening you could find them in the Ned R. McWherter Technology Building on Pellissippi State’s Hardin Valley Campus, working on the car.
“We focused on developing an understanding of the design process, vehicle dynamics and construction resources needed,” Boone said. “The material these undergrads are learning about suspension design alone is usually beyond undergraduate level. My next big idea is to have a Fundamentals of Automotive Engineering Design class to teach students the basics, but I haven’t pitched that to Dr. Wise yet.”
Despite months of hard work, Pellissippi State Motorsports didn’t finish the car until the morning they left for the competition because the engine control unit died the day before. The engine control unit controls the fuel injection system, idle speed control system and ignition timing – all things necessary to make the engine perform the way it should.
Boone knew the team couldn’t go down without a fight.
“We called Fastech Motorsports in Louisville (Tenn.) because we needed extra hands to install (the new one), and they sent us two guys to help,” he remembered, noting students were required to do all the design work but could outsource the parts. “They arrived at 6 that evening and worked straight through until 11 a.m. the next day.”
Boone and other students stayed overnight as well, working on the car ‘til the last minute.
“I was sleeping under a table in the shop and trying to study for a final at UT,” Boone noted.
The sacrifice paid off, as Pellissippi State Motorsports got the car running moments before they left. They drove it directly from the shop onto the trailer that would haul it seven hours to the competition at the Michigan International Speedway.
“We never got to run the car prior to competition,” Boone said, foreshadowing what was to come.
The Moment They'd Been Waiting For
The Formula SAE competition is comprised of both static and dynamic events, each of which carry a point value. Static events are presentation, cost and design, while dynamic events include acceleration, skidpad, autocross, efficiency and endurance.
“To be surrounded by huge teams – including big teams from Europe that have huge budgets – was definitely cool,” Boone said. “Some of these teams are graduate students, and their cars are more advanced. But we were definitely at or above average.”
Right off the bat, Pellissippi State Motorsports passed all their safety inspections, which meant the team got to move forward to compete. Some teams travel all that way and don’t even get to do that, Boone noted, but Pellissippi State Motorsports’ car passed on its first try.
“Our biggest surprise for everybody was not that we were the only community college in the competition, but that we were a first-year team,” Boone stressed. “The chief design judge said our car was the best first-year car he had seen.”
Unfortunately, the new engine control unit still was causing an issue – and not one that the 20 members of Pellissippi State Motorsports who had traveled to Michigan could diagnose and fix on site.
“If the voltage going to the ECU gets below a certain level, the car goes into what could be described as a sort of limp mode,” Boone explained. “We couldn’t go beyond 20 miles per hour. That was terrible.”
Despite the troubled engine control unit, Pellissippi State Motorsports still met Boone’s personal goal of entering the car in every event – and the first-year car did not come in last. Universitat Stuttgart of Germany finished first while Pellissippi State Motorsports finished 95th of 108 teams that got to compete.
“We certainly had a great first year, but I know we can do better than this,” Boone said with determination after the competition. “We are designing a whole new car now.”
Pellissippi State Motorsports is already back at it, designing a new car to take to Formula SAE California in June 2020.
“Our main objective is to reduce the weight,” Boone noted. “The car is way too heavy at 578 pounds with fuel/without a driver. We need to reduce that by at least 100 pounds.
“We also need to be more prepared for the design event,” he added. “We need to understand the physics of the car better. That should be a priority over performance.”
Boone’s goal is to get the new car completely finished by March so that they have plenty of time to run it. In the meantime, however, Pellissippi State Motorsports has been taking the first car to events to drum up interest and sponsorship, as well as using it for driver training.
With the ECU fixed, the car can go 80 miles per hour, he noted.
“We have about 25 students working on it now, and I’m trying to recruit more Mechanical Engineering students from UT,” Boone said. “But some of the Pellissippi State Mechanical Engineering Tech students also are doing design work.
“I want Pellissippi State Motorsports to be sustainable, so it’s still my responsibility to build it up,” he added, even though he’s on track to graduate from UT in spring 2020. “I’m hoping the team will get much bigger than it is now.”
Sponsors such as Barton Racing, which provided the team with a 28-foot trailer to haul the car as well as $20,000, and donors helped Pellissippi State Motorsports succeed their first year. And Pellissippi State’s president has turned out to be the team’s biggest fan.
“When I first met with Christian, I must confess I didn’t understand how powerful participation in Formula SAE would be for our students,” Wise said. “It is so much more than a club. I’ve come to view it as an undergraduate research experience where our students design, build, test and compete — and then make necessary adjustments in order to improve. They’ve learned about deadlines, resource development and teamwork – and represented Pellissippi State extremely well. I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in 2020.”
Looking To The Future
Boone is still leading the club, despite taking classes at UT and continuing his job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he has worked full time as a lab tech since graduating from Farragut High School in 2014.
“It’s hard to get an engineering degree in four years if you work a full-time a job,” Boone noted.
But the fact that’s he’s headed toward a career in mechanical engineering is impressive considering he finished high school with a low grade point average.
“Being around the Pellissippi State professors helped motivate me, especially those in the Engineering Technology department who showed me the value of what I’m studying,” Boone said.
Launching and leading Pellissippi State Motorsports has only helped his education, Boone added.
“Pellissippi State Motorsports has helped me learn a lot of technical stuff about car design, but what it’s really taught me is leadership,” he said. “I have learned how to work with different personalities and diverse communication styles and that, in turn, has helped my work motivation.”
Now his dream of attending racing school has been replaced with a new dream: becoming a team principal in Formula 1.
“F1 is the fastest moving industry in the world as far as technical development is concerned,” he said. “I still think I have a chance in motorsports. I definitely do think it’s better that it happened this way.”