In the early morning hours, you’ll often find a small group of UNLV students huddled over a car engine, wrenches in hand. UNLV’s Rebel Racers team is a college Baja SAE chapter of SAE International, a professional and educational engineering organization.
This small but dedicated group of racers work long hours perfecting a single-seat all-terrain vehicle capable of executing the most grueling off-road challenges. The goal is simple: dominate the track during the annual Baja SAE race competition.
“When I started in the club, in 2014, the team was scoring 50th to 60th overall in the event,” said Adam Gentil, now a mechanical engineering graduate student who has held multiple positions within the club, including president. “Since then, we’ve worked our way into the top 10.”
The annual spring competition is held in three different cities over four days each and includes events like design, sales presentation, acceleration, and maneuverability, and culminates in a four-hour endurance race. This year’s competition would have taken place in Tucson, Arizona, Louisville, Kentucky, and Peoria, Illinois, from April through June.
“Competition really tests how the team works in a very fast-paced environment. Vehicles break down and it’s about how well you work as a team to fix the situation and get your vehicle back on the track,” driver Nicholas Thompson said. “We’ve always done pretty well on that.”
A design two years in the making
The Rebel Racers have climbed the standings as underdogs. For years they lacked funding other college teams had to purchase the lightest vehicle materials possible. So Rebel Racers focused on working with what they could to make their vehicle lighter and faster. This included stripping weight out of everything that wasn’t structural, and even designing their own shocks.
That scrappiness and innovation paid off, as did fundraising efforts that have now enabled the team to afford key materials like carbon fiber that were previously out of reach. With their legacy innovations and more funding, they set out to improve their design.
Work on a new car began in 2018 and was completed in March, just in time for the spring 2020 competition. The team had been road testing their vehicle and were excited to get it out on the course and compete head-to-head against other schools.
The crew continued to prep for the in-person competitions even as news of coronavirus lockdowns started to sweep across the country. With less than four weeks to go before the first competition in Arizona, SAE announced all events would be held virtually.
Competing against 250 other teams, Rebel Racers placed fourth overall, the highest spot ever for the team – thanks to a top-10 finish in the cost presentation category, a top-20 spot in sales presentation, and reaching the design finals.
But that doesn’t take all of the sting out of not being able to see the final product where it counted – on the track.
“Our car was so good on paper that we made it into the design finals,” team president Youssef Fahmy said. “We really wanted to see how it performed on the track, against other schools.”
But the great scores have really bolstered the team’s confidence heading into 2021.
“There’s nothing quite like competing against others, on a course designed by professionals to basically wreck your vehicle,” Thompson said. “We’re looking forward to getting back out next year. The live competition really provides camaraderie and energy that just can’t be replaced.”
Cultivating lifelong skills
The team hasn’t just tackled the nuts-and-bolts side of the competition. They’ve had to polish entrepreneurial skills, leaning on team members from different disciplines who are always willing to share their expertise.
Rebel Racers boasts various sponsorships with companies like Tesla, Collins Motorsports, South Point Hotel Casino, and more. Three team members secured internships this summer with Tesla, including accounting major and past team president, Gianna Cagnina.
Cagnina is working in Tesla’s quality operations department bridging the gap between management and people on the floor. Prior team members have been hired by automotive industry stalwarts based in large part on their practical experience with SAE competitions.
“During my freshman year at UNLV, my Business 103 professor said, ‘If you don’t find a reason to stay, you won’t stick it out,’” Cagnina said. “That always stayed with me, and although I had never picked up a wrench, I joined SAE and became part of a team that helped me gain lifelong skills.”