Senior Spotlight: Five Seniors Re-Invigorated SAE to Build a Winning Racecar

In 2016, Drexel’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) club was in something of a sorry state. “There was pretty much nothing. They had a closet for space. They had a frame that had just arrived; but for the most part nothing was getting done. Most [of the older members] had already graduated or left the team,” recalled Nicholas Bilancio. “The last running car was in 2013. That car never made it to competition.” This was a theme throughout the early years of the team’s development cycle. “No one had built a Formula SAE car. No one really understood the competition in whole,” said Sean Kennedy.

Working with then-interim Dean Giuseppe Palmese, MEM students Nicholas Bilancio, Sean Kennedy, Josh Welsh, Brandon Pettie, and Amirhossein Daliri Shadbad, together with other members of the club, were able to secure a larger space in the Innovation Studio. “Getting that actual workspace made a big difference,” Bilancio recalled.

Drexel Seniors Amirhossein Daliri Shadbad (left), Brandon Pettie (center left), Joshua Welsh (center top), Sean Kennedy (center right), and Nicholas Bilancio (right) at the 2019 Formula SAE competition.

“It doubled the size of the shop. We were more noticeable in the Innovation Studio instead of in a closet near the Innovation Studio. The space helped the team greatly,” Kennedy added.

Formula SAE quickly became a dominant feature in the new team members’ lives. “It was school, eat, sleep, racecar… Not much else,” said Bilancio. And despite new resources and hard work the team members put in, things didn’t necessarily go smoothly. “At any one time you had 15 to 20 projects going, being run by whoever,” noted Kennedy. “It was loosely-controlled chaos,” Josh Welsh added. “Definitely a struggle. Definitely not smooth sailing at all,” confirmed Bilancio.

Then the team hit a major setback. After spending a year and a half working on the frame they inherited, they learned that it was no longer a valid design for the SAE competition, and they would have to start over. “We dumped a lot of time and effort into trying to fix that. It ended up being something that was unsafe and would never really meet any competition rules,” noted Josh Welsh. “We lost at least a year on that car,” remembered Bilancio. However, even a setback as large as this one didn’t upset the teammates. “We all learned a lot on that car. Whether it be how to run the team, how to do projects, how to organize things, and then also all the engineering principles that we stumbled on,” noted Kennedy.

And all their hard work seemed to pay off just in time. “It was probably a year and a half to a year and eight months before it was together and running, and that was about a month before the competition,” said Kennedy. At the competition, “I was an absolute nervous wreck for like three days,” Bilancio admitted. “--Until we passed tech inspection,” confirmed Kennedy.  “It was so cool,” Bilancio began to explain, “It was a competitive environment, but it was also friendly. We all had the same common goal, and everyone wanted to share ideas.”

“I think it's pretty fair to say we learned more in those five days than we did in a year and a half of building the car,” agreed Kennedy. The team’s rewards weren’t limited to learning either. Ultimately, the Drexel SAE team car scored in the top 10 for fuel efficiency and placed first among first-year teams at the 2019 competition.

When asked what advice they had for prospective students, Welsh, Bilancio and Kennedy encouraged students to get involved. “[Formula SAE] is so broad that really no matter what you find yourself doing after you leave Drexel, there are aspects of this that can be applied in any career you find yourself in,” noted Welsh.

“It’s not just racecars,” agreed Bilancio. “There’s stuff that can be applied across the board.”

Kennedy added, “It’s definitely helped our engineering careers. I had gotten a lot of interviews, and in every interview if they didn’t know what SAE was-- [then] they were amazed it existed. If they knew what it was, they knew exactly what we were going through.”

“Formula SAE taught me so much that I had a really, really good interview,” agreed Bilancio. “Between the team and the co-op program, that’s why I have a job today.”

Learn more about Drexel’s Formula SAE Team.