In her career, Esther Unti wants to perform vehicle dynamics and modeling for passenger cars. But as the technical lead for Cal Poly’s formula SAE race team, consumer desires take a back seat to speed.
“Racing is all about time,” said Unti, a Healdsburg, CA, mechanical engineering senior.
As Cal Poly racing’s first female technical lead, she steered the look of the team’s two cars (one electric and one combustion) and guided the analysis, making sure others followed through with initial designs and hit their deadlines.
Before the team finished 13th overall in both the combustion and electric car competitions at the formula competition in Lincoln, Nebraska, this summer, Unti talked about racing, car design and her mother’s unique career change.
What got you into cars?
I’m not from an engineering family. My dad owns a winery and my mom was a lawyer, and then she cut hair for a while.
Wait a minute – your mom was a lawyer and she became a hairstylist?
Yeah, she was a lawyer and then she quit when I was in high school, got a cosmetology license and then cut hair for several years and taught cutting hair for several years and is now back to doing some legal writing.
Did she just hate being a lawyer?
She hated it. Being a lawyer, you have to fight all day long with people. She just wanted to do something different.
Okay — getting back to cars . . .
A lot of kids on the team, or people I’ve run into at places I’ve worked, they grew up with dads who wanted a go-kart, and they built it together. Or they come from racing backgrounds or they had motorsports in their family forever. But I grew up with Shrinky Dinks and crafts.
But I did auto shop in high school. I thought it was a really good skill to just have, and it turned into what I wanted to do the rest of my life.
Do you have a favorite era of car design?
1970s era Saab Sonnetts are some of my favorite cars, but they’re totally dumb because they are front-wheel drive and they’re just death traps.
They’re not performance-y at all.
When you think about well-designed cars, are you thinking more about how they function or how they look?
Reliability and the way they interact with people.
On our car, we’re doing a max-performance goal – we want to win our competition. But when you get out into the passenger car world, it’s much more about making people like driving that car.
I like cup holders.
Feedback plays so much more of a role than we’d ever think in automotive design.
It seems like the formula cars have lost popularity to NASCAR. What do you think about that?
The people I interact with on a daily basis are all formula fans, and we all kind of laugh at NASCAR.
Our type of racing – the courses are really tight courses. They almost all require really tight maneuvers. Very technical courses. That requires high driver skill. But it also requires paying attention to the different modes of operation.
I think a lot of people who work on these types of cars think that complexity is really cool.
Esther Unti, Bob Comstock and Japji Singh ready the Cal Poly formula race team’s combustion car for competition.
Do you change your oil or do you take it in?
That’s the argument I had with my mom a while ago. She was like, “Just take it in – it would be so much faster and more convenient.” But, eh – it’s cheaper if I do it. And I like to change my own oil.
You played trombone in jazz band. What music is most conducive when you’re trying to design?
If I’m doing homework, sometimes I need to listen to music without words. So I usually go to jazz. If I’m trying to do something calmly, maybe I’ll listen to some contemporary jazz guitar. I’m a big fan of Pat Metheny and John Scofield.
What are you doing differently this year?
I wanted to improve the amount of validation we do and make more of our decisions data driven than guesses or based on models that are outdated and not ever validated.
So this is sort of the “Moneyball” of formula racing.
That’s a pretty big part of what you have to do to approach the competition. Because your goal is to win or to finish in a certain place. Ours was to place 8th this year. Then you have to look to the points breakdown for every different event and what place you need to be in in order to get a certain number of points. And then that place determines what time you need to get. . .
Cal Poly’s formula race team creates cars that have to be both fast and highly maneuverable.
When you’re thinking of these things, are you Googling everything? How are you researching that?
Almost everything that I know is from people. I’m a very talk-to-people, look-at-things kind of person.