Extra-car-ricular Activities

By Sarah Young
Jul 27, 2009 | BMW, Mazda | Posted in Shop Work | From the June 2009 issue | Never miss an article

College students usually know a thing or two about sticking to a budget. Whether they’re churning out frappuchinos to buy textbooks or foregoing restaurants in favor of ramen, it doesn’t take long for many students to learn the value of a buck. When a group of guys from the Georgia Institute of Technology showed up at one of our money-minded Grassroots Motorsports $200X Challenge events, the pairing made perfect sense.

These competitions require teams to build a car that can carve through cones, rocket down the quarter mile, and wow at the concours, all for two grand—well, technically the budget is equal to the year of competition. Mix the fund-stretching savvy of the average college kid with the engineering know-how of a Tech student, and you’ve got a shoo-in team for these events.

But this wasn’t just any group of students; this was Wreck Racing, an official, school-sanctioned club. That’s right, alongside Kappa Sigma, the chess club and the Quiz Bowl team exists a group dedicated to wrenching on fast cars in an on-campus workshop. Their sole mission? To build low-buck machines and enter them in our Challenge events. Georgia Tech has officially chartered the club since 2005, and each year the students return to the Challenge with their creations.

Here It Goes Down

Considering their university affiliation, it’s fitting that Wreck Racing likes to put their brains to work during their builds.

Considering their university affiliation, it’s fitting that Wreck Racing likes to put their brains to work during their builds.

We held our first Kumho Tires Grassroots Motorsports Challenge back in 1999, and by 2003 word of the competition had drifted to the bustling campus of Atlanta’s Georgia Tech. Andrew Sullivan and his good friend Andy Powell were in their sophomore year at the university when they heard about the event at a local autocross.

Challenge regular Dave Hardy explained the concept to them between runs. “We are both big car guys,” Andrew says. “We couldn’t resist the allure of putting together a fast car out of junkyard parts and getting together with a bunch of other folks doing the same thing to race it.”

The idea to make their venture into a club came soon after. One of the main inspirations? Budget concerns. Amid their initial eBay and craigslist searches for cars and parts, it became apparent that they couldn’t build a car on a couple of crumpled Washingtons and a wish. On top of that, the duo predicted that their wrenching skills might come up short during the course of the build.

“Of course, we didn’t let any of those concerns get in the way of actually buying a car,” Andrew confesses. The guys shelled out $600 for what would become Wreck Racing’s very first Challenge vehicle, a 1985 Volkswagen GTI.

Team, Assemble!

With a car, a plan and a healthy dose of gumption, the club began to take shape. To make the effort financially possible, Andrew and Andy came up with the idea of charging dues: $75 would cover one year of membership per person. Now they just needed members.

The duo began to recruit their friends and classmates, fervently selling the concept to anyone who would listen. “We made it clear that the only thing you needed to join was an irrational love of cars and $75,” Andy explains. “I was certain that the GRM competition was going to be Burning Man for car nuts, and I think that was contagious.” The club ended up gaining 20 members by the end of the semester.

Finding storage and work space was the next order of business, and club member Phil Case employed a strategy that’s surely familiar to any other college student: He asked his parents for help. They generously offered the use of their residential garage, and it became headquarters for the fledgling club. The Wrecks would call it home for approximately two years.

Any tree house-dwelling kid can tell you that a club needs a proper name, and early member Jason Deas dubbed the effort Wreck Racing. This handle is more than a badge of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, as it’s actually derived from the college’s fight song. Among some perplexing references to drinking and gambling, the lyrics exclaim, “I’m a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, and a hell of an engineer!”

The gang had ambitious plans for their GTI project, including swapping in a 1.8 T engine, but factory anti-theft features rendered the parts incompatible. By the time the $2004 Challenge rolled around, the car fell a bit short of their original vision. “We ended up swapping back in the old motor and went to the competition with a car that wasn’t at all stunningly fast,” Andrew explains. “In fact, we had to roll it into the concours tent.”

While the club’s beginnings were humble, the wheels were set in motion for it to become a true success. “Everyone involved had a great time at the competition and was excited to return the next year,” Andrew recalls.

Kind of a Big Deal

Their 1991 Mazda Miata features a Lexus V8 and paddle shifters.

Becoming a chartered club at Georgia Tech required its fair share of legwork. First, Andrew and Andy needed to convince a member of the faculty or staff that their idea wasn’t nuts.

Enter Sterling Skinner, Director of Instructional Labs at Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. He’s also a car nut and founder of the Georgia Tech Auto Show, an annual event showcasing the broad range of machines owned by Tech students, staff and affiliates. After some pestering, Skinner signed on to provide support and guidance as the club’s staff sponsor.

Next, Andy and Andrew needed to outline the purpose of the group in a letter of intent and submit it to the school’s Student Involvement Center. They also had to compile a list of at least 10 members and draft a detailed club constitution.

It turned out that becoming official was well worth the red tape. The status eventually allowed the club to move out of the garage and into the coveted second floor of the Student Competition Center, a Tech-owned workshop operated by the George W. Woodruff School. It also provided the group with a bit more green.

“In the early days, all we could afford as a club were the parts to put on the car and to get it to the annual GRM Challenge. Once we became an established Georgia Tech club, we were able to leverage our school connection to gain several forms of sponsorship,” explains Nathan Sumner. Nathan has been a club member since 2005, and during his tenure he has filled the offices of vice president and president of Wreck Racing.

“This support came in various forms,” he continues, “including cash from General Motors, Caterpillar, MSC Direct and the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, as well as free services like tire mounting from Gran Turismo East and free or discounted parts from DIYAutoTune, The Racer’s Market and Harrison Motorsports.” These parts are factored into the budget at fair market value, of course.

Nathan also cites George Carstens and the Matt Barnard family as important contributors. And finally, Georgia Tech’s Student Government Association provides the club with one of the largest portions of its funds.

Thanks to these donations, the Wreck Racing workshop now features a range of equipment, including a two-post lift, shop computer, car trailer, tools and welders. The funds also cover entry fees for events like autocrosses and drag races—after all, they’ve got to test out their mechanical work somehow.

“Sponsorship has allowed us to provide more educational experiences, from hands-on wrench-turning to computer-aided design, fabrication skills, and even driving skills,” Nathan explains.

Metal and Brawn

So, this club must be brimming with bench-racing car nuts, right? Not exactly. Wreck Racing currently has about 30 members, and the oil-blooded enthusiasts are accompanied by a healthy number of interested novices as well as gearheads with basic skills looking for a challenge. All Tech students are welcome to join at any time, just as long as they’re currently enrolled in the university and have good academic standing.

Wreck Racing meets on organized weekly “workdays” in the Student Competition Center, and currently the team is fielding two Challenge entries per year. The overall goal of creating mechanical monsters is broken down into manageable projects. Aside from standard officer positions like president, treasurer and secretary, the club also features designated roles for these specific projects.

A member can volunteer to become the lead vehicle engineer, lead of engine and transmission, lead of cosmetics, and more. These leaders act as head honchos for their areas of the project, recruiting workers, assigning tasks, gathering needed supplies, and sticking to deadlines. Other members take to the computer to model prototype parts. “While we do have these defined assignments, many teams are interconnected, so members are exposed to and work on many aspects of the vehicle,” Nathan adds.

The club is decidedly educational, as new members are encouraged to learn the ropes in a friendly and open environment. Exhibit A: Nathan’s first day. “It involved me volunteering to swap out the differential in the BMW E30 despite not knowing how to do it,” he recalls. “I was tossed the hefty Bentley manual and had at it.”

Plus, the club is always looking to apply classroom knowledge and take the road less traveled, as shown by Exhibit B: Their Miata is now powered by a Lexus V8 and features a homebrewed transmission controller plus custom axles designed to handle the increased power.

Don’t be fooled: This club might sound like fun, but it also makes for excellent career preparation. It fosters leadership, project management, networking and real-world engineering skills that turn members into dangling bait for job recruiters.

That’s how Nathan landed a co-op job with General Motors. “One of my supervisors was astounded that I, just a student engineer, could actually fabricate prototype parts for testing in addition to doing the engineering tasks of setting up and running the test and analyzing the results,” he says.

Staying Classy

While individual members will continue to join and graduate, the club doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact, the founders joke that Wreck Racing has flourished since they got their diplomas.

The club’s focus will remain building cars for the Grassroots Motorsports $200X Challenge, but you might start to spot their retired Challenge vehicles seriously competing at Atlanta-area autocrosses. After all, these are machines built by tomorrow’s top engineers—why not put them to good use? For updates and details, visit wreckracing.com.

Five Years of Wreck Racing

While the Wreck Racing name might conjure up images of limping jalopies, these Georgia Tech students have built some interesting and innovative machines.

$2004: 1985 Volkswagen GTI

This eight-valve, 1.8-liter VW marked Wreck Racing’s Challenge debut. The car was prepped to tackle the cones and the quarter mile thanks to springs, shocks and a fabricated anti-roll bar plus a lightweight flywheel, four-puck racing clutch and a set of Hoosiers. Mechanical issues got the better of the car, landing them in 49th place out of 76 entries.

$2005: 1984 BMW 325e

This Bimmer came with Bilstein shocks but received a MegaSquirt fuel injection unit and limited-slip differential. The results were good: The team shot up 11 spots from the previous year. And thanks to club member Greg Thibeaux’s autocross skills, the team received the dubious honor of hitting the most pylons.

$2006: 1984 BMW 325e

The BMW came back with a fresh paint job for its Challenge sequel, and the theme seemed to be “movin’ on up.” A turbocharger boosted power, helping them knock off more than 2 seconds in the drags. While their autocross time suffered, the team was able to climb a staggering 17 spots from 2005, all the way up to 21st.

$2007: 1984 BMW 325e, 1991 Mazda Miata

The turbocharged BMW returned once again, this time with a transplanted heart. The car featured a super eta block fitted with an i-model head, along with customized circle track springs and grippy R-compounds. Wreck Racing hit its peak at this Challenge, landing the BMW in 12th place overall in a field of 46.

This year also saw the debut of the team’s Miata. The basically stock 1991 model was stripped down to the essentials, then outfitted with race seats and stickier tires. Its defining feature got them high marks from the concours judges: They carefully adorned the exterior with a layer of blue painter’s tape.

$2008: 1984 BMW 325e, 1991 Mazda Miata

While 2008 represented a tough year for Wreck Racing—both of their entries received DNFs due to persistent mechanical issues—the team overcame some interesting challenges in their build process. In addition to stripping off the tape, they outfitted the Miata with a Lexus V8 and reprogrammed the stock automatic to accommodate paddle shifters. Wreck Racing received the Best Attempt to Persuade Concours Judges award for a statue they fabricated out of spare parts during their Challenge downtime.

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View comments on the GRM forums
3/22/10 1:31 a.m.

Road trips wont be that exciting if there is unsafetiness of the vehicle.There have been complaints for a while the US can't make a decent automobile anymore, and now it appears nobody really can. The Honda recall comes on the heels of the Toyota recall and several other vehicle recalls this year – as the Honda Element and Honda Odyssey both have brake problems. Honda could be fixing the vehicles, but various people might get a personal loan or payday loans to have a technician fix it prior to the recall is due to start, to get ahead from the curve. Is it really that hard for making a auto that doesn't practically kill the driver? It seems a minimum of partially ironic that the majority of the defects are in safety features.

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