Princeton Racing Electric students design sustainable race car

For the past two years, the student organization Princeton Racing Electric has been designing and building an all-electric, high-performance vehicle to compete in the international Formula Hybrid competition. Watch their journey to qualify for the event in New Hampshire. (Video by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

When Ben Sorkin put on his racing suit and helmet, he knew the moment he waited over two years for had finally come. His teammates helped strap him into the driver's seat. For the first time, he would be energizing their electric car for its very first run around a race track.

Sorkin, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major and rising senior, is a member of the student organization Princeton Racing Electric.

"The thing that drives the team toward success is the intersection between passion and sustainability," Sorkin said. "We are doing research and innovation for a sustainable energy future."

Princeton Racing Electric has over 30 student members representing multiple class years and academic disciplines. For the past two years, the team has been designing and building an all-electric, high-performance vehicle to compete in the international Formula Hybrid competition run by Dartmouth College's Thayer School of Engineering. In May 2015, the students completed a car in time for the competition held at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. However, the team did not pass the mandatory inspections, and the car was not able to race.

According to Sorkin, out of more than two dozen teams entered in the 2015 competition, only three qualified fully by following the strict guidelines in the approximately 180-page rule book.

The 2015-16 academic year was going to prove to be the year the car hit the track. The team held weekly meetings from the start of the year and devoted long hours to new designs and engineering for the vehicle.

Tarik Dzanic, a rising junior in mechanical and aerospace engineering, focused on the systems that had failed in the 2015 vehicle.

"I started designing the steering systems, the new suspension system, brake systems," Dzanic said. "It was mostly about 20 to 25 hours a week of design or machine work."

The time spent working on the car was in addition to the students' academics, independent projects and extracurricular activities. For first-year students like Ashley Barnes, now a rising sophomore, being a member of the club was the perfect way to begin an academic career in engineering.

"I joined because I wanted a glimpse at what it would be like to be an engineer," Barnes said. "We have all these things, all these tools, at our disposal. It's not a usual thing you would get at home or if you were trying to do this anywhere else."

The team designed and built their car using the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Machine Shop, allowing them to handcraft and custom-make many of the vehicle parts. To buy additional parts, they sought funding from University departments and external sponsors.

The 2016 competition was held in May during the Princeton students' reading period for final exams, so just a few team members towed the electric car to Loudon, New Hampshire, for the multi-day contest. When they arrived, they were once again faced with the difficult task of passing multiple inspections to qualify for the competition.

The team passed the technical inspections after a few minor adjustments, and the vehicle passed the electrical inspection, which was the most difficult challenge for many of the registered teams. Princeton Racing Electric did not qualify to compete, however, due to a fault in the brake system's master cylinder: All four tires would not lock up during the brake test.

The car was deemed safe to operate and run without earning qualifying points for the competition, and so Princeton Racing Electric was able to run one successful lap on the race track for the first time in the team's history.

"Actually getting into the car we built as a team over the past two years, being able to hit the start-up sequence, and, at the end of that sequence, press the green button and hear the double beep, put my foot to the pedal, and just take off under its own power was an exhilarating feeling," Sorkin said.

Princeton Racing Electric plans to enter and race in the 2017 Formula Hybrid competition.