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UIC wins tug of war at Backwoods Baja competition

UIC's SAE Baja team

UIC’s Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) Baja team won the tug-of-war competition during the Backwoods Baja 2021 hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin.

UIC competed against 17 schools in the contest. In each matchup, two opposing cars were ratchet-strapped together facing away from each other. At the signal, both cars’ drivers hit the gas and tried to pull the other one in its direction. The winner of each pairing was declared when one car out-powered the other.

Backwoods Baja also included a six-hour endurance race around a track. UIC’s team saw both of its Baja cars flip over and break down but made the repairs needed to keep at it, winning a special award for perseverance.

“The team did a phenomenal job fixing the cars by welding repairs on the frame and drive axles,” said Hannah Thiel, Baja team captain and mechanical engineering student.

Computer science major Tim O’Laughlin serves as the team’s suspension lead, and ensured both cars were working properly. This included the team repairing a broken suspension on one vehicle before the race, and reattaching a dislocated tie rod with spare parts during the race. Both cars also needed frequent adjustment to the air pressure in their shocks.

Awards aside, the students were thrilled to be back in competition. Events were cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19, and the prior year’s race was cut short due to cold and rainy conditions in which cars got stuck often.

“It was absolutely fantastic to be back, and great that 11 of our 12 drivers had the chance to drive the car,” O’Laughlin said. “The course itself was so much fun, and it was a great experience to be working on the cars together as a team during the race.”

This year, warm weather and a perfectly dusty track welcomed the competitors back. There was a heightened atmosphere of excitement during the fast-paced endurance competition, with cars coming on and off the track for repairs or to switch drivers during a wheel-to-wheel race.

“It felt good to be back in a casual competitive spirit and face other schools,” Thiel said. “It has been a while since the Baja team has gotten the chance to drive the cars on an all-terrain race track, so it felt refreshing.”

Learn more about the SAE at UIC student organization at