By David Fleet
A love for dirt bikes and off road has landed former Atlas Township resident in the drivers seat.
Alex Gardner, 22, a 2014 Goodrich High School graduate and current University of Michigan-Ann Arbor senior is team captain of the Michigan Baja Race team.
“I just gravitated toward the Baja people as a freshman,” said Gardner, who will complete his degree in mechanical engineering in December “Coming from the Goodrich area, there were always dirt bikes and plenty of off road activities growing up.”
His engineering skills coupled with a desire for speed vaulted Gardner to the top of the student-run Baja Race team competition. Each year the team of about 40 students design and manufacture an off-road race vehicle from the ground up. The team machines parts, fabricates molds and assembles the new car at the Wilson Student Team Project Center.
Then test and tune the car for competitions against more than 100 other schools world wide.
“It’s not just building a car,” said Gardner. “It’s also about finding sponsors and the time to put it all together. We build about 95 percent of the car—we don’t touch the tires, wheels or shocks. We start from ground zero each year and make incremental improvements each year of the design.”
“We are funded in part by the University of Michigan and in-kind donations from corporations,” he said. “It’s a very expensive endeavor to build and race the car. Companies such as Ford or GM help subsides the project plus we all make great connections in industry.”
Gardner explains the 2018 Baja car weighs 262 pounds—25 pounds lighter than the 2017 model.
“We all get the same stock engine—a 10 horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine so if you can shave off a few pounds it makes a big difference in speed. We weld our own frame, build a custom transmission and really push the design. If we don’t the other teams will and you’ll get beat.”
Gardner and his team is gearing up for the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Baja. The Michigan Baja Racing team along with other teams world wide travels to about three competitions annually and face challenges in dynamic events such as endurance racing, a maneuverability course, sled pull, hill climb and acceleration event. Cars also compete in a variety of static events including design judging, sales presentation and cost report.
“Every course is different,” he said. “On the final day about 100 teams go on the track for about four hours over big obstacles through water holes, up steep hills and around sharp corners. All the cars can only go about 40 mph so in the end it’s which car won’t break.”
The formula for success has worked for the UM Baja team. For the last three years the UM Baja Team was earned the Mike Schmidt Memorial Iron Team Award.
“It’s the national championship of Baja,” he said.