The UNLV Rebel Racing has been at the bottom for years.
Since 2007, the program has been competing in the Baja Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International collegiate division, building its own off-road vehicle.
It did not pass the technical inspection until 2013. Each year that a college does not pass the tech exam, it does not get to race. Rebel Racing spent seven years going to competitions without once getting to drive its car on the track.
Something changed in 2020, because in the last two years Rebel Racing brought home eight trophies.
Rebel Racing is a student-run organization that builds single-seat, off-road vehicles. From bare chassis to the carbon fiber nose cone- these student engineers create a car and travel across the country competing against other colleges. They’ve been fighting for years to make the best car they possibly can, and their work is beginning to pay off.
“The problem is that the smallest thing could hurt us, just the smallest little details can really break or make your race,” said Ashton Pearson, projects manager for Rebel Racing. “This year we had a few failures.”
In 2021, Rebel Racing was competing in Arizona. For this competition, the car ran with a belt box in lieu of a gearbox.
Despite the hours of testing conducted at home, Rebel Racing got to the endurance race and the belt box would not last 10 minutes on the track, as the belts started shredding apart inside the car. For the four hour endurance race, Pearson changed the belt four different times.
Three weeks later, Rebel Racing competed in Louisville, Kentucky. With the previous results on the belt box, the team decided to put in a gearbox they developed and finished at the last minute.
During this competition, the gearbox exploded twice. Pearson said they got a lot further with this gearbox than they did in the last competition with the belt box. It lasted an hour before it exploded.
At the Tennessee competition in May of this year, Pearson had manufactured a new gearbox in the time between competitions.
He retained a set of secondary gears from the previous one, not knowing that there was anything wrong with them. During the suspension and traction course, that secondary set of gears broke.
The team had a two week period to fix the gears before their next competition in Rochester, New York. It ended up flying one of the members back to Las Vegas to manufacture a new gear set.
When the new gears got back the team was in Rochester, New York, and had enough time to put them in the car. Pearson said there were zero hours of testing on the new parts; they were just hoping that this new material worked for them.
“It matters because at the end of the day when you’re racing with those bigger schools that have three times the budget as you, you have to be on your game,” Pearson said.
In September, Rebel Racing competed in Arizona and did the best it ever had. The team was in first place against 45 other schools in the endurance race before their driver Kolby Tran started having complications.
Over the radio, Tran told the rest of the team that something was wrong with the car and that he could not steer.
Just a few moments before Tran was on the radio, he drove off a jump and snapped a joint on the front upper control arm when he landed. The car had to be towed back to the rest of the team.
Without getting Tran out of the car, the team moved as quickly as they could to replace the part. The team was able to get it fixed and Tran returned to the course in under 15 minutes.
“Whenever stuff breaks during the race you have to move as fast as you can to get it back out there because every second you’re losing time, and you’re losing a position,” said Mason Durham, the systems integration engineer.
Even with a quick pitstop, Rebel Racing dropped from first to 15th place. Tran spent the next three hours of the race slowly gaining positions. Finally in the last 20 minutes, University of California, San Diego, had something break on their car and Rebel Racing went from fourth place to third.
This was the first race in their history that Rebel Racing received a podium finish for the endurance race. At the competition, the team received a first place award in the cost event, third place in the endurance race and seventh overall.
“The suspension and traction courses are tough because they are meant to test the durability of your car without it breaking. So we were worried about that, but luckily nothing broke and nothing major happened,” Durham said. “We went further than what we thought we were going to make. So that was nice.”
SAE International is a spec series race, meaning that all the cars built and entered into the competition are built exactly the same.
This year SAE announced that some of the spec regulations will be changing. Some of these changes include having four wheel drive and a completely new engine. The new engine is one and a half times bigger and 20 pounds heavier than the one they currently use.
Pearson said that the car is designed specifically to their driver and is currently developed to just fit everything that’s inside.
Rebel Racing has a goal to get the car built by their next competition at the end of May. They have a lot of technical goals like keeping weight low, getting the acceleration time down, and getting a higher maneuverability score.
However, they understand that it is not going to be the best car on the track. Other schools already meet the new spec requirements. For Durham the most important part about building this new car is that everyone is able to learn something from this experience.
“R7 should be a tool to help everyone learn how to build a car. It’s not necessarily going to be the best, but it’s going to be a good experience for everyone,” Durham said. “I think that’s what I’m hoping everyone gets out of this new design cycle.”
This article was submitted by a UNLV journalism student as part of an assignment for a journalism class to get work published in the student newspaper. The article was edited by The Scarlet & Gray staff.