Smithson readies dune buggy for contest
Thursday, April 5, 2007

April 5, 2007

Danica Wright Booth/The Tennessean - Dust flew up into the hot March sun as Nathan Harless spun his tires across the grass on the Lipscomb University campus.

The act, which normally would have received reprimand, was cheered by a crowd of advisers, professors and students who have spent the past year creating the Lipscomb University Mini Baja dune buggy from scratch.

"Can you see the tears in my eyes?" asked T.J. Tennent, an engineer with Bridgestone Firestone who served as an adviser to the students.

Tennent assisted the racing team, led by a group of nine senior students who constructed the all-terrain vehicle, which will be the school's first entry in the Baja SAE Series, a 25-year-old contest in Ocala, Fla., on April 12-15.

Lipscomb engineering students raised the necessary $20,000 to build the vehicle, designed it from scratch and collected all the materials.

At competition, the buggy will have to complete a variety of tasks, including running for four to six hours to test endurance, navigating an obstacle course and surviving a water obstacle.

"We still haven't done the water testing yet," Tennent said. "It is actually going to have to float."

The vehicle represents the final project for eight engineering students, including Amy Gilfilen of Marietta, Ga.

"We started on the frame a week after Christmas break," Gilfilen said.

For Gilfilen, who has interned at NASA and traveled to Guatemala to build a bridge on a mission trip during her career at Lipscomb, the hardest part of the whole process was simply finding time to complete the project.

"I'm glad we got it all together," she said, watching Harless fly the vehicle off a short brick stairway.

Unlike many teams that have competed in previous years and that are allowed to use their old vehicles, this is Lipscomb's first year in the competition, so students had to start from scratch.

"I think we have a good chance," said Rob Smithson of Franklin. "We'd like to get first, but we'd at least like to get Best New Car."

The team divvied up the pieces of the vehicle, each of them focusing on a different portion of the mechanics, and Smithson designed the front suspension.

"This is the first time I've got to see it go," Smithson said. "It's awesome, seeing all our work out here, moving."

Though none of the seniors will return to the team, Tennent plans on coming back next year, a seasoned veteran of Mini Baja Dune Buggy Racing.

"Tennessee Tech was trying to steal me away," he said, "but they've won for the past three years. I don't think they really need my help, and Lipscomb has been fun.

"It's fresh. It's all brand new," he said, "and they're thinking outside the box."

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