Chinese UTV OEM teaming with Georgia university for off-road race in Mexico
Hisun, the Chinese manufacturer of side-by-sides and ATVs, and Georgia Southern University figure to make a bit of history at the SCORE Baja 1000, the highly coveted off-road race held on the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico every November.
Georgia Southern, located in Statesboro, Ga., and Hisun Motors Corp., USA, with U.S. operations in McKinney, Texas, will both have some new “No. 1” banners to hang in their respective garages. Georgia Southern, with a two-person team aboard Hisun’s Strike 1000 sport side-by-side, will become the first collegiate team to enter the Baja 1000 race in the UTV-specific class, and the first collegiate team to compete in the race in more than three decades, according to Spencer Harp, team advisor and laboratory supervisor for the GSU Department of Mechanical Engineering. Hisun, meanwhile, will become the first Chinese manufactured UTV to enter the race. The 840-mile course must be completed within 40 hours of crossing the start line.
And considering that Eagle Motorsports, the Georgia Southern race team’s moniker, began working on the UTV in mid-June, finishing the race will be a feat in itself. But don’t go underestimating the team of 14 that will head to Mexico for the race. They’ll be joined by Ryan Daugherty, vice president of sales and marketing for Hisun Motors Corp., USA, and Dr. David Renfroe, a suspension dynamics expert who consults for Hisun.
Georgia Southern teams have been competing in Society of Automotive Engineer (SAE) races, including the Baja circuit, geared toward college teams for years. Briggs & Stratton provides 20 horsepower engines to the team, and a recent SAE Baja event attracted 141 entrants. Shortly after Harp contacted Daugherty about the prospects of using the Hisun Strike 1000 in the race, GSU participated in a SAE Baja event in Auburn, Ala., which Daugherty attended.
“I was very impressed with the team,” Daugherty said. “I looked at the standings of the SAE off-road events over the years, and they finished within the top 10 at many events, which is impressive wen you consider schools such as Cal Poly and MIT were there — a lot of very prestigious schools, including all of the Southeastern Conference schools. Most were large engineering schools, and you’ve got this smaller engineering school in Georgia that finished in the top 10 of almost every event; that helped us make our decision to join up with them for the Baja race.”
Hisun provided the team with a stock Strike 1000, along with an exhaustive list of parts. In addition, Hisun staff has provided technical expertise and logistics to assist in transporting the Strike 1000 from Georgia to Mexico and back.
“I think it was the perfect fit for both Hisun and Georgia Southern,” Daugherty said. “We’re hopefully optimistic. We realize this is a first for all involved. We also realize there are teams which spend millions of dollars to compete in this category. The goal is to finish the race, and that is going to be a monumental win if this collegiate team is able to do that, with a vehicle that has never competed in any race.”
A CLOSER LOOK
Here’s a closer look at the Baja 1000 race from the Georgia Southern University perspective:
“It’s not a sustainable activity for us to go out and baby step into the field,” said Harp. “You get noticed for the splash that you make, so we’re just jumping in and doing something else that no one else has done.”
The team, one of three racing teams within Eagle Motorsports, was challenged with rebuilding a brand new UTV from the ground up to meet SCORE-International requirements. SCORE-International is the governing organization of the off-road race.
“You’re not just riding down a dirt road, this is just a rough cut path through the middle of the woods,” Harp said. “Some of these paths haven’t been touched by man, period. You can go from riding down a smooth beach or smooth dirt road to going through mountainous rocky, terrain, crossing old riverbeds full of silt and sand. It’s an endurance race.”
Kara Dees, co-captain of the team and one of two female students traveling to Mexico, and Robert Branch, captain and team manager, are two of the students that’ll be driving and co-driving the car.
Both students said they have taken up various forms of exercise to prepare, but also are relying heavily on their faith and support system made up of friends and family, to prepare mentally for the challenge.
“The biggest thing is: To finish first, first you must finish. You have to beat the terrain first,” he said. “The co-driver has a duty and obligation of not only being your ears and eyes because you also have to watch out who’s behind you, but they are also normally your mechanic. Most of the time for professional and amateur racers, the co-drivers are the first person to step out of the car. If the driver is hurt or any changes need to be made communicatively, it is the co-driver’s responsibility.”
In addition to the driver and co-driver, there is a chase team that follows the course to support if anything goes wrong. For Eagle Motorsports, an additional support team on the East Coast will watch a live broadcast of the race and track the car with GPS to communicate with the chase team in Mexico.
“There are some areas of the course that are in a valley where our radio communications won’t work, our satellite phones won’t work and at times, you might be 100 miles from anyone who can help you. So there is a fear factor associated with it,” said Harp.
The team also faces another challenge — criticism from veteran racers, some who invest millions of dollars to participate in this race.
“Most teams spend a minimum of two years building a platform to go race, and we started a year ago with the idea, and spent six months trying to secure a corporate sponsorship, then building, designing and figuring out the logistics,” Harp said. “That’s a third of the time anyone else would normally attempt to do it. We’ve been told by several seasoned professionals that this was an absurd idea and we’re really reaching.
“But what they don’t understand is where they may have a team of two or three people, we’ve got 20-plus, well-educated engineering students making an effort to ensure everything is accounted for,” he continued.
Branch added, “We’ve had plenty of people ask ‘Why not start with something smaller?’ But a lot of people start to realize that time is a factor in everything they do. If someone came to you and handed you a once in a lifetime experience, and you knew that you’d have to work every single day to even come close to success, would you still take it? That’s what I was left with and I chose yes.”
And while Harp admits the team might be “in the dark a bit,” having accomplished so much in so little time is what is driving the team’s motivation.
“Being able to see our hard work come to fruition is the sweetest reward. This year long project has had many ups and downs along the way,” Dees said. “I am excited to make history by showing up as the first collegiate team to ever race in this [class of] competition.”
The Baja 1000 team departed for Mexico Nov. 9, and the race began Nov. 20. Television coverage is available on CBS Sports Network and ESPN.