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Racing on life's highway: Students build race car from scratch
The students piece together – apart from the engine – their ups and downs in making a commercial, professional racing car from scratch. It all started from a coffee shop discussion on a fateful winter day. Now they are trying to market it also.
FOUR YEARS ago, four students of the RV College of Engineering sat in a Cafe Coffee day outlet on Mysore Road, and it was not a movie or a book that they discussed, but how to make a racing car from scratch. They were novice engineering students, and what were the chances, even if they completed the car design, of running it on a real racetrack - they didn’t know. It was November, the air was cold, and ‘A lot can happen over coffee’ billboard stared at them. That was how the ‘Ashwa Racing’ team - students making race cars - was first conceived.
Cut to 2007, their so called RZ06X car won the ‘Best Car from South Asia’ award in the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE) event in Germany, also the first Indian team to compete in the FSAE event in 2005 in Australia, which won the ‘Best Value for Money’ award. That was all in the news, and they enjoyed it.
“We work hard,” says Nikhil Manjunath, an Ashwa member, who also demonstrated how to eject from a car’s seat in five seconds to pass a qualifying test in Germany. “You know, our motto is to work hard but not to think what results it might bring,” he says in a muffled voice from inside his helmet on a zooming two-wheeler.
Cars are associated with glamour, but one will see no glamour if pushed inside a workshop. And that is where the Ashwa team belongs - no frills. “What started as an idea has now 40 members,” says Bharath Swaminathan, who’ll also answer everything under the sun about Ashwa. “We conduct tests if somebody wants to join Ashwa now, which was not the case earlier,” says Swaminathan. 
But it’s mending and fixing and tuning their so called “baby” in a rugged workshop in the college that give these engineering students a high. “We love theories, but we love practicals more,” says Dr RS Kulkarni, professor of mechanical engineering, who flew with the students to Germany for the big race. “Students in India are intelligent in theories, but in practicals, I feel they are handicapped,” he says. The professor recalls that during the FSAE event in Germany, they slept in tents by the racetrack and it rained hard. “We were soaked and sleeping was out of question,” he says.
That’s from a professor of mechanical engineering (time for stereotypes to go home?). India needs such teachers, who can connect with students, cry and laugh along but not those theory -based hard cases.
The car is one thing, keeping the Ashwa team alive is another. There’s a constant pressure of getting good grades. “We have exams next month. So, for one more week we’ll work on the car and then turn to books,” says Manjunath. The Ashwa enterprise does not enjoy smooth sailing 365 days. “We keep motivating ourselves, apart from rescuing diminishing morale of some members at times,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we don’t hang out. We eat out together, sometimes go for films too,” he adds.
These students are also running low on cash. Of course, making a car like the RZ06X is not equal to buying a party shirt. Ashwa needs somebody who can finance them for future projects. “Western universities put a lot of money on such projects,” says Swaminathan. “I don’t know what’s the case with India,” he says.
Trust issues among students and teachers in India may be a problem, feels Kulkarni. Any project by some 21-year-olds costing around Rs 20 lakh will scare timid mentors, and India’s record in higher education is not really world class. In this regard, RV College’s principal Dr SC Sharma and the head of department of mechanical engineering Dr B Anand are pioneers. They didn’t doubt their students - a lesson other colleges should learn.
Ashwa’s story is also a story of rejecting fear. “We share the car’s development information with IITs and other engineering colleges, and after some time it becomes competitive. But we like competition,” says Swaminathan. The team will take part in a Vehicle Design Summit by MIT in the United States, and will also join a hybrid vehicle event soon. They’ll also try to market the car to niche industries such as amateur racing.
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