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UTArlington Students' Mini Indy Racer's Secret? Wings!

College students from 11 schools will race scaled down Formula One cars this weekend in Arlington. The students on the UT Arlington team say what sets their car apart are  its wings.

UT Arlington Professor Bob Woods says this sounds like a lawn mower engine. That’s debatable. What’s not in question is its speed. The school’s 2013 entry into the  downsized Formula One  university competition can reach 130 miles an hour.

“All these cars have combustion engines and aerodynamics and things that  make them go fast on a traditional racetrack.”

What Woods and team captain Naima Rivas say will help this fast car go really fast are its wings.  They’re spoilers, tested last year and improved for this year’s entry into the 13th Annual Texas Autocross rally.

“The wings are electronically controlled to enhance the aerodynamic performance. So each wing has a servo motor that J.P. can tell you about.”

J.P. is UTArlington aerospace graduate-student  James Patrick Merkel. Using his aircraft knowledge, he came up with the front and rear foils that help this speedster race faster through rapid turns and speed changes. In fact, the wings are his master’s degree thesis.

“The wings have onboard controls, they’re all servo controlled,” says Merkel. “The computer calculates the best aerodynamic distribution for the car and it’ll change all the wingsand change the angle of attacks and what not, to try and balance out the car.”

Woods says this car runs faster than last year’s, thanks to the wings. He says the design impressed a roomful of judges at a recent competition.

“They brought 50 judges to stand around this car and watch the wings open and close. We got a demo mode where the wings dance and open and close and they were mesmerized.”

Team captain Rivas, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, is confident this car will be a winner. She’s also working on the team’s electric powered racer, and wants to keep developing electric vehicles after graduating.   

While the students are still here, Woods says this program for small Indy cars offers them real world skills classrooms alone can’t provide.

“Because they have to work as a team. Usually when they work as a team we call it cheating , kick them out of school,” laughs Woods.

Texas Autocross weekend kicks into high gear Saturday morning at 8:00 on UT Arlington’s big lot. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.