Cal Poly Baja Team Races for Success in their Inaugural Three-Race Season 

The Baja SAE team hoists their vehicle after completing their dynamic events in Gorman, California
Cal Poly’s Baja team members hoist their vehicle after completing the endurance segment at Baja SAE California in April. The team placed 10th overall and has high hopes for the Pennsylvania race kicking off this week.

Cal Poly Racing’s Baja team launched its 2024 season with a bang, securing a top-10 finish and aiming even higher for their next two competitions – the first time they’ll tackle three races in a season.  

At last month’s Baja SAE race in Gorman, Cal Poly’s off-road vehicle excelled in the dynamic events, clinching first in maneuverability, second in hill climb and fourth in acceleration. These stellar performances propelled them to a 10th -place finish.   

However, a technical mishap during the endurance portion dashed the team’s hopes of achieving their perennial goal of reaching the top 5, highlighting the thin line between triumph and adversity in such competitive arenas. Despite this, members remain optimistic, buoyed by their overall performance.  

Baja SAE vehicle clears an obstacle on the off-road course
Cal Poly Racing’s Baja SAE vehicle, CPX24, catches air over an obstacle on the endurance course in Gorman, California.

“This is the most technically advanced car we’ve had in the last three years,” said team manager Harrison Van Der Walt, a fourth-year materials engineering major. “We can’t wait to see what it can accomplish in our next race.”  

They won’t have to wait long; team members are already packing their bags for Pennsylvania, where they will reunite with the vehicle they’ve tirelessly crafted, just in time for the competition starting May 16. Facing a field packed with 108 teams, Van Der Walt remains confident in their chances.  

“We learned a lot from Gorman,” Van Der Walt said. “We’ve got a badass car and we’re ready to roll.” 

Students put the vehicle on the ground for the first time in the Hangar machine shop
Cal Poly Racing’s Baja team celebrates the first time their vehicle, CPX24, touches the ground in the Hangar machine shop. Members spent countless hours designing and building the off-road vehicle for competition.

Cal Poly’s Baja team has proven itself a formidable competitor, achieving seventh-place finishes in two 2023 races with their four-wheel-drive vehicle. This year’s vehicle, engineered for exceptional reliability and power, boasts a 10-foot turning radius and a top speed of 38 mph.  

Baja SAE, sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers, challenges engineering students annually to design and build an off-road vehicle that can navigate rugged terrain, testing it through a series of competitive races.  

Traditionally, the SAE season includes three races, but due to the significant costs of transporting team members and their car across the country, Cal Poly has opted to participate in only two. This year, in a first for the program, the team decided to compete in all three races. 

“Why not?” Van Der Walt said, addressing the decision to expand their participation. “We can make it happen, and we have nothing to lose. It gives us more time with the car and more opportunities to learn.”  

The key, he said, is raising enough money to send a crew to the fall race in Holly, Michigan. Supporters can contribute to the Cal Poly Racing Baja SAE crowdfunding campaign here. The team originally set a goal of $10,000, but with an additional race, they now aim to raise $17,500 by the end of the month. Team members emphasize that every donation helps.  

Students in the Hangar machine shop prepare the vehicle for their next race in Pennsylvania
After competing in Gorman, California, Cal Poly Baja team members prepare their vehicle for the next race in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, aiming to crack the top 5.

The team comprises about 50 active members, including 30 leads managing 13 subsystems ranging from brakes and chassis to powertrain and steering, all supported by four in management roles. Majors from across the college are well represented, with many members sharing an enthusiasm for the outdoors.   

Upon graduating from his high school in Los Gatos, California, Van Der Walt enrolled at Cal Poly for its materials engineering program. Joining the Baja team was an added bonus, made even better by the fact that members shared his interests in mountain biking, rock climbing, camping and, of course, off-roading.  

“We get to build a cool car, do outdoor activities and by the end of the day, we’re like a family,” Van Der Walt said. 

Each year, the team rebuilds their vehicle, but this year they implemented even more extensive changes, altering everything except the rear hubs. They are still the only collegiate team in the field to use a dually actuated eCVT, enhancing their vehicle’s performance.  

“Making one change often leads to a cascade of others,” said Van Der Walt, laughing.  

This year’s model, weighing in at 385 pounds and featuring a frame that’s 3 inches shorter, is 50 pounds lighter than its predecessor, enhancing maneuverability. This strategic redesign paid dividends at Baja SAE California.  

Cal Poly's Baja vehicle navigates the course in Gorman
Cal Poly Racing’s Baja SAE vehicle prepares for the acceleration segment at Baja SAE California in Gorman. The team placed fourth in acceleration and secured 10th overall.

Cal Poly Racing sent a crew of 48 to Gorman, with about 10 others traveling independently. Additionally, nearly 20 alumni attended, drawn by the proximity of the race. “We had the biggest showing there,” Van Der Walt said.  

After securing top-four finishes in their preliminary events, the team was poised for the grueling four-hour endurance test, the final challenge of the dynamic portion. The test assesses vehicle durability, reliability and performance over rough terrain, including obstacles like hills, mud, rocks and water crossings.  

Cal Poly led for most of the race, keeping the fastest car on the track for nearly three hours, until the throttle cable mount failed, abruptly ending their dominant run. Still, they managed to place ninth in endurance, completing 48 laps.  

Before returning to Cal Poly, the team had already pinpointed potential fixes.  

The car is now in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, with team embers set to fly out this week. They plan to meet virtually over the summer in preparation for their third race in September in Michigan.  

“It’s nonstop,” Harrison said, with a grin. “We’ll take a brief break after the quarter ends, then we’ll dive right back in. Everyone is deeply invested in our team’s success – it’s what drives us.”  

By Emily Slater 

Team poses after their race concludes in Gorman
Cal Poly Racing’s Baja SAE team gathers after their race in Gorman in April. For the first time, they are competing in three events this season and are seeking financial support.