The beginning of the capstone project was lying in a corner of the Cheryl and Robert Gross Engineering Design Center. John Vanderwey, a mechanical engineering senior from Phoenix, Arizona, took the partially fabricated chassis and welded it with his passion for off-road racing, automotives, and working with his hands. The result? A four-wheel drive race vehicle built to compete in the Society of Automotive Engineers Baja competition in Washington, a senior capstone team, and a revitalized Baja Lions Racing Club.
In spring 2022, Vanderwey asked Matt Siniawski, professor and chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department, if he could take the chassis home and promised to have a functional vehicle by fall 2022. Siniawski agreed, under two conditions: that Vanderwey assemble a capstone team and resurrect the LMU Baja Club, which had been dormant. The mechanical engineering student agreed immediately and began his Baja car-building journey.
“Off-road racing is fun and is something I enjoy doing myself,” said Vanderwey, who began racing in high school and who comes from a family that has been competing in desert races for the last 30 years. “So when I had the opportunity to do that in college, I jumped on it.”
During summer 2022, in addition to having a full-time internship and spending hours on the SAE project, Vanderwey also had to look for used components online to reduce the project cost. He joined every utility terrain vehicle Facebook group to seek low-cost spare parts and the answers to his inquiries. His summer was a series of early mornings and late nights. After countless hours of research and gathering the essential components, Vanderwey designed, cut, and fabricated the car from the ground up – a first time feat for him.
“I made datums to help me reference my build to ensure everything was even and square, and built jigs that helped me understand, tweak, and replicate the geometry of the vehicle,” he recalled. “I used the tools in my garage and bought the ones I didn’t have but needed.”
“I would be lying to say that it was easy,” Vanderwey said. “I quickly learned that the challenge was a much bigger undertaking than I anticipated.”
The LMU Baja Club was founded in the 1970s and teams competed in Baja SAE races with two-wheel drive vehicles. But for a few years, the club was dormant. Professor Emin Issakhanian, associate professor of mechanical engineering and the faculty advisor on Vanderwey’s project, tried to bring back the team in 2018 to compete in 2019. Unfortunately, the pandemic side tracked this plan. “The project is daunting when starting from scratch, but this year has found very dedicated students who are committed to seeing the project through,” Issakhanian said. “More importantly, they are committed to building a solid foundation to allow LMU to continue to participate and improve in the future.”
In fall 2022, Vanderwey delivered: he developed a functional Baja Car, assembled a capstone project team and revived the Baja Lions Racing Club as president to ensure the project’s longevity.
“Baja Lions Racing will continue the legacy we are establishing,” said Vanderwey. Executive members of the club include senior mechanical engineering majors Cameron Hagey, Sean Hornchek, Sunil Klein, and Alec Britt and senior finance major Ryan Meade.
Vanderwey is grateful for the team and his family’s support on the project. Help from his father Nick Vanderwey ’88, who has decades of experience designing and building race trucks, was crucial. “He gave me lots of tips, ideas and warnings. Most importantly, he gave me lots of encouragement that really helped me push through every valley and canyon I encountered.”
He also found lessons he learned from courses in machine design and dynamics particularly useful for the project.
Vanderwey will graduate from LMU in December 2023 and will pursue an engineering job. He plans to return to school after a few years of working to earn an MBA degree. He intends to continue his off-road desert racing journey and compete in the Trophy Truck-level competitions.
“The passion to learn and to share is amazing,” said Issakhanian. “There is a lot involved in learning to build a car, and they have never backed down. John has done a great job sharing his experience and knowledge, and the others have stepped up to contribute equally.”
By Kendall Liu, First-Year Film Studies Major