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The baja car on the practice track throwing up dirt.

Morning dew and dust, a day with team Baja

Baja SAE members design, build, and race a single-seat off-road vehicle meant to handle all terrain. In this photo essay, student drivers push the machine to its limits and eat a fair amount of dirt along the way.

Since 1985, Virginia Tech’s student design team has participated in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) nationwide collegiate automotive design competition. The 30 or so members come from many departments, with the largest representation from mechanical engineering. To prepare for the intense off-road competition, students work together to present their vehicle from an engineering design, cost, and marketability perspective before participating in a four-hour endurance race with other schools from across the country. Virginia Tech's Baja team has been a strong contender since it began and has many top-10 finishes under its belt. Earning recognition takes many hours of work in the Ware lab, as well as passion, teamwork, and guts. 

At the start of the event, teams compete in short-course challenges focused on suspension, maneuverability, acceleration, and more. After that, they join 100 or so other cars for the grueling four-hour endurance race. By the time it's over, only about 20 vehicles are still functional. The participants are all students, with two main student drivers. It takes a lot of practice to become in-tuned with the car, so these students are highly specialized and talented, not to mention risk takers.

A practice day with team Baja 

What follows is a photo essay looking into a typical practice day for Baja on their practice track just a few short miles from campus. 

Blake Johnson sitting in his lab.
the Baja team takes back road to the practice track.

The team assembles on Saturday morning at 8 a.m. at the Ware Lab to go over the objectives for the day. They are planning for an upcoming race in Ohio and need to work out last-minute kinks. They grab their "Go Box," with all the pre-packed essential tools, and load up the Baja car on a student-driven trailer. The convoy of five or so student cars peel off of the main road onto back roads that wind around farms and arrive in a field with tall dewy grass. 


Like all racing vehicles, the car operates on the edge of control and is not for the faint of heart. The driver is harnessed in tightly, which takes two people pulling in opposite directions to get the straps fully secure. 


Sometimes the car is on only two wheels, while at other times, it flies through the air. It's a testament to the suspension team that the car can take off and land "gracefully" while maintaining good speed and control. The drivers are used to the vehicle and know exactly how far they can push it.


About an hour into practice, the car breaks down. It might sound like a setback or time wasted, but this is actually when great things happen. Leaders have to step up and bring the team together, with each member bringing their specific expertise to fix the problem in the field. This hands-on practice is important for the competition where student teams do not have all of the conveniences, or tools, that they have in the Ware Lab. It is not in the moments of success, but rather in the moments of failure when the team grows. During this practice they fix the problem... and, usually, have to do it all over again. 

The rest of the practice is an impressive display of speed and handling, as drivers hone their skills and the team tweaks their car. They are ready. Ready to head off to Ohio for competition.

Since the time of this writing the team placed 3rd overall at Baja SAE Ohio 2023. In addition, they were 4th in endurance, 1st for overall dynamics, 2nd for suspension, 3rd for maneuverability, 3rd for pilot pull, 8th for acceleration, 11th for design, 13th for cost, and 26th for sales presentation.

Meet the Baja team leads

Baja car team leads post by the practice track with the car in the background.


Owen Mocksfield, Mechanical Engineering (left)
Daniel Taminger, Mechanical Engineering (right)
Baja car team leads post by the practice track with the car in the background.

Drivetrain Co-Leads

Sofia Garcia, Mechanical Engineering (left)
Claire Stridick, Mechanical Engineering (right)
Baja car team leads post by the practice track with the car in the background.

Senior Design Liasson

Steven Little, Mechanical Engineering (left)

Recruitment Lead

Matthew Orrell, Mechanical Engineering (right)
Baja car team leads post by the practice track with the car in the background.

Suspension Lead

Cole Owenby, Mechanical Engineering (left)

Chassis Subteam-Lead

Wade Donalson, Mechanical Engineering (right)
Baja car team leads post by the practice track with the car in the background.

Fleet Maintenance Co-Lead

Matthew Blanton, Mechanical Engineering (left)
Peter Mercatili, Mechanical Engineering (middle)
Madalyn Irvine, Mechanical Engineering (right)

Learn more about Baja on their channels


Photos by Peter Means

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