Meet USC Racing’s Team Captains

| December 4, 2017

A Q&A with the undergraduate students who run this year’s Formula SAE racing team

USC Racing Team Captains Luke Sanasarian and Kenny Barrera. Photo/Ashleen Knutsen

In June, the USC Racing team achieved a major milestone by completing all events at the Formula SAE student competition, held in Lincoln, Nebraska. For 2018, they set their sights even higher.

Each year, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) invites teams to design, build and test a formula-style, single-seat race car and compete in a variety of static and dynamic events, including presentations on design and cost analysis and four racing events. Last year, USC Racing completed the 13.7-mile endurance event for the first time in their eight years at the competition, earning them 24th place out of the 73 teams who competed. This summer, they plan on breaking into the top 15.

Team captains, Luke Sanasarian (ME ’18), head of engineering, and Kenny Barrera (ME ’19), head of business, discuss their experience on the team and this year’s competition efforts.

Are you both racing fans?

Luke Sanasarian: In high school, I got really into cars and that’s kind of why I chose to major in mechanical engineering. I was getting into Formula 1 right around the time that I was looking for colleges, so this team seemed perfect for me. It was actually one of the reasons why I came to USC.

Kenny Barrera: I’ve always liked cars. I grew up around a mechanic (his father) and I was always interested in learning how to actually fix and work on a car. I think the biggest thing I took away from the racing team was the knowledge and being able to transfer that same knowledge over to an actual car.

When you first joined the team, were you surprised at what goes into building a car?

LS: I’m not surprised at how much work goes into it, but I was surprised at how much design work is actually done by the students. I expected it to be kind of a cookie cutter thing where the rules tell you how to build a car and then you build it and take it to competition for fun. But really, Formula SAE gives you a box to build a car inside of and they let you run wild within those rules. Ninety percent of the car is parts designed by students and built by students and put together. The fact that it’s even able to go by the end of the day is surprising to me.

KB: I was just always amazed at the end product and just knowing how deeply each component interacts with each other. For example, how much power train depends on the electronics and how the whole vehicle itself depends on the aerodynamics. It’s just insane. I never thought I’d be involved with something like that. Seeing a regular commercial car, you think it must be easy making all these things come together, but when you get down to the core of it and you start really trying to understand, it blows your mind. How does this happen within one year?

Did you need to know anything about cars to join?

LS: With newer members coming in, we don’t expect you to have any knowledge about how any of this works or even any engineering knowledge. When you’re a sub-team lead or when you’re in our position, you try to teach people as much as you can as you go along. That’s one of the things that I enjoy about our organization and my position. Getting to pass knowledge down is really rewarding and seeing people who are younger than you be successful is rewarding because you feel kind of like you were a part of that. I hope that the people that were older than me that helped me out feel the same way. It’s a good cycle to be in.

What’s it like being a team captain?

LS: It’s not easy, but I enjoy it. It’s always a difficult challenge when you’re trying to lead a bunch of peers. I’m friends with all of them outside of racing and sometimes it’s difficult when you have to get something done or you need them to meet a deadline. It’s kind of a balance that you have to strike. But I enjoy getting to have conversations with all the different sub-teams about their goals and helping them out and making sure that we’re coming up with a car that’s going to work together.

KB: I think it’s pretty cool and I like the fact that it helps me interact with a lot of different people, and not just here at USC, but everywhere.

What are your goals for the year?

LS: We’re looking for a top 15 finish this year, which I think is definitely achievable. We’ve been improving on our place every year for the last six years or so. I think we’re making good progress and we’re on our way. For the past three years or so, we’ve built mainly the same car. The reason behind that was, since our goal was to finish endurance, we wanted to improve reliability. If you build a similar car, you know the car back and forth, you have spare parts, it makes life a lot easier. But one of my goals coming in was to make sure that we were looking at this not only as a racing competition, but also as a way for us to learn as engineers. There’s a whole different part of this competition, which is learning how to be a good engineer and make good engineering decisions. So, I tried to encourage the sub-teams to have at least one innovative design that they were going to apply to the car to make it better.

Do you do belong to any other groups at USC?

KB: I have a work-study job on campus and I’m also a mentor for the Center of Engineering Diversity. I have three mentees this year, which I really enjoy. I meet with them a couple times a month or so and help them make connections and get involved, as well as anything they’re having an issue with, like their classes or if they need help with their resume.

LS: This year, I decided to just focus my efforts on school and racing, and also finding what I’m going to do after graduation. When you get really involved in the team, you expect to put a lot of hours into it. I enjoy it and see it as a part of my education too.