The smell of gasoline lingers in the fall air while half a dozen engineers lean against the wire fence separating them from the track. They watch Ariel Gil dodge pylons as he drives the Ryerson race car around the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park karting track. Revs become faint as he finishes the first hairpin turn in the distance. Then, a thump.
Jake Holloway, Ryerson Formula Racing (RFR) project manager, rushes up to the fence.
Members of the RFR team drove their 2016-17 student-built race car in its final competition Saturday at the University of Toronto Shootout in Bowmanville, Ont.
The team conceives, designs and builds a formula-style vehicle every year to compete in the international university Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) series.
Holloway said they will be taking this year’s race car out for a couple more test drives before dismantling it down to its frame.
This past weekend, Ryerson competed against 17 other teams, including Formula SAE teams from the University of Waterloo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Montreal’s École de Technologie Supérieure (ÉTS). Ryerson placed 14th overall.
Adressing the thump, the team does not break eye contact with the white, blue and yellow race car as they eagerly mumble among themselves about how they are going to fix it.
In engineer lingo, one of the teammates tells Holloway the body panel on the car’s right side came loose.
“At least it’s still on,” he responded.
Holloway and 11 other teammates speed walk over to meet the race car when Gil approaches the course finish line. A couple of team members position themselves behind the race car and push Gil to an open parking spot.
Four RFR team members raced Saturday. Each driver completes at least four runs consisting of two laps each, the first being a trial run. The final rank is based off the average of the two fastest drivers’ laps.
The team huddles around Gil to dissect his third run. He remains seated in the cockpit wearing a black helmet.
They do this after every run to go over the driver’s performance, mechanical issues and make any quick fixes if necessary.
“This whole thing is a lot about reflection,” Gil said, after he finished his runs for the day. “When I’m designing, or even when we’re just talking in a team, you have to be open to criticism.”
Today, Gil is dressed in a fireproof jumpsuit — mandatory for all drivers — with the words Ryerson Formula Racing and a ram stitched on the back.
“I’ve had to realize I’m not a pro driver and I make mistakes,” he added. “During a few of those laps, I probably wasn’t careful enough.”
Even though Gil sometimes gets nervous about driving the student-built car, he said he has learned to trust it, because he trusts the people behind it.
“It can be about the cars, and some of it is, but some of it is just the people, the problem-solving and the creativity,” Gil said.
Gil said he does not even really consider himself to be “a big car guy.” He added that the project management aspect is mainly what brings him to spend hours in the Kerr Hall North basement garage every year.
Keenan Harris, an aerospace grad, calls RFR a family.
“You learn to work together even when things don’t go well, even when competition may not have gone well and the entire team may have averaged four hours of sleep, if that, for three days and you want to kill each other,” he said, laughing as he refers to the team’s biggest competition in Michigan last May.
In one of their best competition performances to date, the team placed first out of all the Ontario competitors at the Formula SAE Michigan Competition Series event.
The judges evaluated their model’s cost, presentation, design, acceleration, skid pad, autocross and endurance. They came 25th overall out of 128 international teams.
On the karting track sidelines, David Swain watches races in his Mobil 1 logo jacket. The Mobil 1 grassroots motorsports co-ordinator for Canada has been a RFR sponsor for the last 15 years.
Swain said the adaptability skills students learn from being a part of a team like RFR are invaluable.
“It’s exciting to watch and to see what they do,” he said. “Some stuff you see, it’s pretty exciting, you think, ‘wow, that’s pretty innovative,’ and other stuff you think, ‘wow, they’ve got some ways to go.’ But hey, it’s a learning process.”
Harris said throughout the entire competition year, the team was challenged when applying theory to real life, particularly when they first test-drove the car.
“Stuff breaks and things don’t quite work the way they’re intended to.”
Harris added that the team worked together to take things apart, redesign them and remake them.
Sometimes the solutions are simpler.
While the team waits for Gil’s last run, Zac Campbell, another RFR alumnus who graduated in June, pulls out a roll of duct tape. Campbell kneels beside the car and takes off his aviators.
He secures the loose side panel with one grey strip. It’s all fixed.