The internationally-known Baja 1000 off road race kicks off today in Mexico and among the competitors is the Georgia Southern Eagle Motorsports Racing Team, the first collegiate team to compete in the Utility Task Vehicle (UTV) Class of the race and the first collegiate team to compete in nearly 50 years. Leading that team is Thomaston native Spencer Harp, now an adjunct faculty member at Georgia Southern in Statesboro.
Harp is the son of Barney and Brenda Harp, and his grandmother owned Vickie’s Cake Shop in Thomaston. He was born and raised in Thomaston and graduated from Upson Lee High School in 2004.
Harp is an admitted ‘gear head’ and said he loves working in the shop on cars and vehicles. When he entered Georgia Southern, he said he didn’t think he would finish, but he stuck with it and graduated in 2009 with an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering and an offer from the university to stay on as a faculty member.
“I have several roles within the university,” Harp said. “The teaching portion of it is a small portion. My primary role here is a departmental engineer for the College of Engineering and Information Technology. If you had told me I would have finished my undergraduate degree, I probably would have laughed at you. But things change and people change and I’m sure some of the people I went to high school with would say the same thing.”
In addition to his undergraduate degree, Harp finished up a Master’s Degree in Applied Engineering in 2011.
Georgia Southern started a Society of Automotive Engineers program in the 1970’s, and Eagle Motorsports evolved from that. In the 1990’s, the program served as a senior design project for mechanical engineering students. In 2010, Harp took over as faculty advisor for Eagle Motorsports and opened it up to all students as a club activity. While students from all over the college can be a part of it, the majority are still mechanical or electrical engineering students. Under Harp’s guidance, Eagle Motorsports is now a competitive international Top 10 Baja SAE and Top 20 Formula SAE team, competing against some of the top collegiate engineering programs in the nation and the world, such as Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Michigan Tech.
Harp said the two SAE competitions, the Baja SAE and Formula SAE, are scaled versions of race cars that give students more practical knowledge of automotive engineering.
“The focus isn’t really on the racing aspect,” Harp said “It is more on the educational benefit, the professional development associated in being involved with them. It is really the only opportunity the students have for real world exposure in an engineering atmosphere. They’re solving problems, they’re doing all the machining, they’re doing all the design work, and then they have to get up and defend their decisions and their designs. So the SAE series isn’t just a race. When you get there, you spend multiple days giving design presentations, marketing presentations, and then once you’ve done all that, you have the opportunity to go out and race the vehicles.
“Every year we’ve been pushing the envelope to try to become a better team in order to build our name, and increase the students’ benefit of being involved,” Harp added. “When you’re a Top 10 team, the people that you are talking to, the people that are judging you are people from the automotive industry. They are the HR directors, the Marketing directors, the VP’s of Engineering. That’s who you’re giving these presentations to. So when you start competing in the Top 10, you start getting international respect for your degree, international respect for what you are doing as an individual. These programs can be and most are life-changing experiences for the students. It really can help define what they are going to do with their careers.”
While Eagle Motorsports has done well in the SAE competitions, Harp said his students wanted to try their hand at racing a full-size vehicle. They approached him in 2014 with the idea of racing in the Baja 1000, a non-stop, 840-mile, off-road competition that is the second hardest off-road race in the world.
“So they came to me with this idea, and I told them if they could find a OEM (original equipment manufacturer) platform sponsor for the project, then we could make it happen,” Harp said. “It was a long shot, it was a throw into the endzone, but we set out to do it, and it has been an inspiration to a lot of different schools and all of our student population here, pointing out the fact that if you put your mind to something and you set a goal, you can do it.”
Hisun Motors Corp. signed on as the corporate sponsor for the team’s effort. Students involved with the project have advanced Hisun’s technology by vehicle testing and contributing engineering design modificagtions to ensure vehicular performance, safety and compliance with race regulations.
“We are competing in the UTV (Utility Test Vehicle) class,” Harp continued. “There are two classes of UTV’s, Class 18 and Class 19. We are competing in Class 18. What we’re running is very similar to a (Polaris) RZR 1000. The general public should be able to associate with that. We’re running with a 1000cc engine, but very little of our stock machine was retained. We did a lot of engineering and improving on the platform. A lot of the stuff we did this year was primarily surrounding safety and making the vehicle actually legal to race. We spent a substantial amount of time and energy preparing this vehicle so it can be as safe as possible.
“This is the first year, but we don’t plan on it being the last year of our involvement in this area, and we’re looking to do some additional engineering and improving. This will probably open the door to a lot of different industries for us. We’re looking at continued sponsorship or alternative sponsors for our future efforts.”
The Baja 1000 team departed for Mexico on Nov. 9, and the race starts today, Nov. 20. Vehicles have 40 hours from the time they take the green flag to cross the finish line. Most UTV’s finish it within 33 hours. Trophy trucks, driven by professional drivers, usually finish closer to 20 hours.
“It’s going to be a blast,” Harp said. “I’m scared to death. It is uncharted terrain for us. We fear the unknown, and when you don’t fear it, you don’t respect it. Our biggest concern through this whole endeavor was our safety and student safety. We’re going and competing and racing in a third world country. This race could not exist in the U. S. There’s a reason it’s held in Mexico. The organizing committee behind this race is very award and very precautious, and they do make a lot of effort to make it safe as well, but you’re still battling the environment and the terrain, and the fact that you’re in – for lack of a better word – a third world country.”
Editor’s Note: The Thomaston Times will do a follow-up article with Spencer Harp when the Eagle Motorsports team returns from the Baja 1000.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.