Panther Racing Revs Engines for 30th Year

racecar in a blue and gold color theme with a group of students and onlookers standing on the right side of photoIn the subbasement of Benedum Hall during spring, it’s common to hear the sounds of drills and welding torches throughout the night.

That’s because Panther Racing, a student team out of the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, is getting its car ready for the annual Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) competition, May 9-12, all while gaining real-world engineering experience.

“At least 15 of our guys work throughout the entire night,” said James Miller, a senior mechanical engineering student, one of the 40 active students on the team. “A lot of our members put more work into this than their co-op or class.”

For the 30th year, Panther Racing will be entering the annual competition at Michigan International Speedway, a 2-mile D-shaped racetrack in Brooklyn, Michigan, that also hosts top motorsports events from organizations like NASCAR and the ARCA Racing Series.

The competition challenges university student teams around the world, both undergraduate and graduate, to develop and compete with small, formula-style vehicles. Last year’s competition in Michigan saw 120 teams registered.

The part of the competition with the most points up for grabs is the endurance event. Here, teams race their cars for 22 kilometers around a course within the racetrack. The total amount of points possible is 1,000 — the endurance event is worth 325 points.

However, the competition doesn’t judge cars by their horsepower alone; design, fuel economy, presentation and cost and manufacturing analysis are also judged.

“Part of the competition is us creating a fictional company,” said Grant Van Horn, a Panther Racing team member and mechanical engineering major who graduated in April. “We pitch this car like we’re on ‘Shark Tank,’ as if we’re trying to get funding for this company. A team may have the fastest car, but if they can’t explain why it’s the fastest, they won’t win.”

male student working on racecar with a few onlookers in backgroundPanther Racing's car, which weighs just under 500 pounds and contains about 2,000 parts, was unveiled on April 8 to an excited crowd of parents and Pitt alumni. The car was built using materials, tools and funding from local and national sponsors.

The team’s goal is to finish in the top 10.

While students learn about the mechanics of a race car, as well as — for some — follow their auto racing dreams, they also learn real-life skills that can be applied to engineering careers.

“I get the real experience I could never get in a classroom,” said Van Horn, whose career aspirations include working in the automotive field. “This is really hands-on and helps us when we all go look for jobs because we have experience with project management, design and machining. A lot of people in the automotive field look for SAE experience.”

While some members of the team have racing backgrounds, that is not a necessary requirement to be on the team. Part of the competition’s judging for cost and manufacturing analysis and presentation involves some business acumen. Those interested in graphic design could also help in designing the car.

“During my freshman year, one of the members who did a ton of CNC machining [the process of using pre-programmed computer software to move factory tools and machinery] and graphic designing for us was a film studies major,” said Miller, who also aspires for an automotive career.

headshot of William SlaughterThe team’s academic adviser is William Slaughter, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, who has overseen the team’s operations for the past 15 years.

“You’re dealing with engineering projects you have in the real world,” Slaughter said of Panther Racing. “You learn all the technical aspects of being an engineer in class, but there aren’t that many opportunities for students to deal with what actually goes into completing projects on this scale.”

Erika Muren, who graduated in April with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, is one of three active female members of Panther Racing. This year, she is in charge of composites work, creating the car’s chassis with multiple materials. Muren’s automotive skills carried over from her childhood days accompanying and serving as a crew member with her grandfather and uncle at Sports Car Club of America events in Ohio.

She said while being a woman in a field perceived to be masculine in nature “seems intimidating,” there is plenty of support to pursue such careers.

“If it’s something you really want to do, it shouldn’t stop you at all,” said Muren, who is also a member of Pitt’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

After graduating from Pitt, Muren will work for Parker Hannifin Corporation’s Alabama branch on a rotational program.

After competing in Michigan, Panther Racing team members plan to enter more competitions, hoping to race their entry in Canada, Germany and Austria, among other places.