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Hard work pays off for MU Formula Race Team

Monday, February 14, 2011 | 9:16 p.m. CST; updated 7:59 a.m. CST, Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Ryan Sobotka welds the chassis frame for the new formula race car in the weld shop at MU Engineering West building. The goal is for the new chassis to weigh 60 pounds, about 15 pounds lighter than the chassis of their last car.

COLUMBIA – Ryan Sobotka knew about the daunting time commitment needed to make Missouri’s Formula Race Team a success.

That didn’t keep Sobotka, the chief production engineer and president for the team, from committing, even at the expense of his marriage.

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“The car was part of the reason for the divorce, so why not pay tribute to that?" he said. "We ended up placing my wedding ring on top of the gearshift, which was a gun grip.”

Sobotka, who is 26 and a junior at MU, joined the team his freshman year and shortly after was served with divorce papers.

“I escaped into the team's workshop even more after that," Sobotka said. "The divorce was really frustrating, so why not come here and do something you have some control over?”

Members of Missouri’s Formula Race Team spend more than 40 hours a week working in the team shop. As part of Formula SAE (the Society of Automotive Engineers) the team competes in organized competitions that allow engineering students to design, build and compete with quarter-scale Formula 1 race cars.

These cars are built in the team’s shop in the basement of Engineering Building West, on Sixth Street north of Stewart Road. The cars are essentially high-tech go-carts with wide tires and sophisticated aerodynamic body panels. However, maintaining a student race team is not an easy task.

“As soon as students come see what kind of time commitment it is, they quit.” Sobotka said. “It’s definitely a juggle. If I had to do it over again, I would probably focus on my grades a little more than the team. But it comes down to a passion, and this is what I love.”

Martin Walker has been the team’s faculty adviser for the past decade.

“This team is very well synchronized," Walker said. "There is no one-upping with this particular team. Everybody has equal respect for the other opinion, and the team comes together to make everything work within the car.”

The team’s camaraderie has certainly played a part in its success.

“I had a feeling our car was going to be good, so the team made a bet with Walker,” Sobotka said. “If we placed in the top 10 at Fontana, Calif., in June, Walker would have to send us to the SAE Australasia event in Australia.”

The team ended up taking seventh in Fontana, which put the team on the path to Australia, an event that only the 2004 Missouri Formula Race Team has competed in.

"Australia is the crown jewel, and everyone on the team knows about the first team that went to race there,” Sobotka said.

From Dec. 9 to Dec. 12, while most MU students were frantically preparing for finals, Missouri’s team was competing against teams from around the world at the SAE Australasia event. A sixth-place finish beat the 2004 team’s seventh-place finish, making Missouri’s current team the school's most successful.

“Going to compete in Australia was an amazing experience, and I am definitely proud of what we accomplished,” Sobotka said.

After returning from Australia, Missouri’s Formula Race Team has started to build its next race car. One of the changes the team has decided to make is to remove Sobotka’s wedding ring gearshift, which will be replaced by two buttons on the race car’s steering wheel. This will allow the driver to upshift or downshift with the push of a button. The team is confident that after extensive testing the new race car will be a technological leap forward.


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