Obstacle Course

USD engineering student in a Baja buggy as a senior capstone project


The Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering was thrilled to host long-time Baja car sponsors — Richard and Susan Pennington — on campus in October 2020 for what proved to be a fun test-drive.

The couple has been involved with the Baja car program since their son, David Pennington ’17 (BS/BA), was a student at USD. He and fellow alumnus Brock Wilson ’17 (BS/BA) started the Baja car program as a Capstone Design project during their senior year.

Since then, a senior design team has led the Baja car program each year. Although the program is small compared to many of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) programs at universities across the country, it continues to thrive each year.

SAE International’s mission is to “advance mobility knowledge and solutions for the betterment of humanity.” One way this is accomplished is by holding annual regional Baja car-racing competitions, which take place over a three-day period. There are static and dynamic components of the competition, culminating in an endurance race as the main competitive event.

For four hours, all vehicles race wheel to wheel on a track riddled with obstacles, including trees, jumps, logs, railroad ties, boulders and ditches. The track is designed to push vehicles past their limit; it is extremely rare for any vehicle to make it through the race without stopping for repairs.

Back in 2017, when the USD team participated in the regional competition, the Penningtons attended to watch their son compete, but soon found themselves busy searching the Bakersfield area for gear and equipment that would meet the strict safety standards set by the SAE judges.

“It was so much fun to watch the competition, and we were grateful for the strict safety standards as we watched other cars flip over, fall apart and collide on the course,” Susan Pennington recalls.

That first year, USD’s Torero Racing team placed 30th in the overall competition out of 94 teams. Not bad for a small team’s first attempt.

Over the years, the Penningtons have remained key sponsors of the program. Sponsorship provides critical support for parts, tools and travel costs to bring the team and the car to the competition each year. So it was with great delight that the 2020-21 team hosted the Penningtons for a test-drive on the gravel lot to the west of campus.

Both Susan and Richard took turns driving the car, wearing the required helmet and cramming themselves into the very small driver’s seat. They both enjoyed taking the car for a spin around the parking lot.

But then, as with the competition itself, the unexpected happened. One of the students took a turn too quickly and plowed head-on into a closed garage door of a storage unit at the end of the lot.

Everyone ran to see what had happened. Although the car’s nose was sticking vertically up in the air, the student remained strapped in his seat and was completely unharmed. That’s because SAE places safety first, with many rules of compliance that must be followed.

Steve Saxer, mechanical shop manager for the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, was not worried that the student would be hurt in this incident or in any situation that may arise in the competition.

“Our team has done extensive finite-element analysis of the frame design to ensure that the driver’s compartment can withstand a 5G incident without compromising the driver’s compartment.”

Still, engineers sometimes have to try to break a product to test it. And even though this test was accidental, the car passed with flying colors.

Susan Pennington was thrilled to have been back on campus to test drive the car and meet the current team — who placed first in the sled pull at the 2021 SAE Collegiate Design Series competition.

“We love supporting this program and seeing each year’s students embrace the challenge of designing, constructing and ultimately getting in the driver’s seat and racing their engineering achievement!” — Elisa Lurkis

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