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Sunday, December 16, 2018

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Aztec Baja Racers Revel in Hard-Fought Victory

After years of competing, SDSU’s student off-road racing team earned a first-place finish.
By Michael Price

“It was a statement win for San Diego State’s Baja team.”

San Diego State University’s student-run Baja Automotive Club is used to uphill climbs. Scrambling up steep hills in miniature off-road vehicles is one of the signature events they compete in, after all. But when Mario Gutierrez co-founded the club in 2012, little did he know the struggle to earn a first-place victory in international competition would continue throughout his entire college career.

Baja SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) is an intercollegiate competition in which student teams design, build and compete in off-road dune buggies known as Baja cars. Each team has to work with the same 10-horsepower engine and must design the cars with both performance and safety in mind.

There are three contests in the United States each year in which 100 or more teams from around the world display their creations and compete in events like sales pitching, acceleration, hill climb, rock climb, obstacle course, and an endurance race.

“You have teams from the top engineering schools in the world entering these competitions,” said Gutierrez, who graduated last spring and now works as a manufacturing process engineer at Tesla’s automotive factory in Fremont, California. “We’re competing against the best of the best.”

When he founded the Aztec Baja SAE club, there were five members. They entered their first competition in 2013, and although they fought hard, Gutierrez quickly realized how difficult it would be to win an event outright. In the first few years of competition, they finished mostly in the middle of the pack.

One of the team’s first big breakthroughs came in a competition in Portland, Oregon, in 2015. They finished 23rd overall, ranking sixth in endurance and 14th in rock climbing. They did even better in 2016—the first time the team built the car entirely on SDSU’s campus—placing seventh in the sales pitch competition and second in the acceleration challenge.

As Gutierrez neared graduation, he hoped to finally take home a first-place victory. This year, the team competed in all three national events for the first time. In Gorman, California, SDSU finished in the top 10 in the hill climb, maneuverability and acceleration events—but still no blue ribbon. In Pittsburg, Kansas, they were the first team to reach the top of the rock climb, but were eventually beat out by a faster team, ultimately earning second place.

Last June, one competition remained in Peoria, Illinois; one final chance for Gutierrez to get his victory. He elected to drive the team’s Baja car during the grueling four-hour endurance race. White knuckles gripping the steering wheel, he instructed his team not to tell him how he was doing until it was over. When the dust settled, Gutierrez finally had his first-place win.

“We had a flawless run, we didn’t have any issues, and we finally won,” he said. “It was a statement win for San Diego State’s Baja team.”

Today, the Aztec Baja SAE team has 45 active members, and is always looking for more hardworking, competitive students to join.

“I hope that teams in the future continue our legacy,” Gutierrez said.