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On the Fast Track

Salt flats become classroom for dedicated UVU automotive students

By Jay Wamsley | Photography by Jay Drowns

IMAGINE a classroom that is a 30,000­-acre expanse of hard, white salt crust, 12 miles long and five miles wide, where sunglasses and floppy hats are required, and the day’s instruction is punctuated by the loud roar of racing engines.

Each fall, at the beginning of the new school year, about a dozen students from Utah Valley University’s automotive technology program gather at what must be the most unusual classroom in the West, certainly one of the most expansive.

“What a great classroom,” Todd Low, professor for 27 years in the UVU automotive technology department, says of the Bonneville Salt Flats and the UVU Racing Team experi­ence. “It’s an extension of the classroom, that’s exactly what it is. One year I took desks out there and set them up on the salt flats. Now that was a great image.”

With his team of students in tow, Low uses an event known as The World of Speed, held during the second week of September, as a chance to see the hard work which started in the classrooms of the Sparks Automotive Building on the UVU campus be put to an exciting test.

This past year, the team set a new record for speed for its Wolverine green machine, go­ ing 214 miles per hour, with Low at the wheel.

UVU Automotive Technology

“We had been 204 in that car a few years earlier,” Low says. “We changed some things last year, got to 198, but this year we went 214. I’m the driver, but I involve the team really heavily. One is in charge of the tires, and I have another in charge of everything to do with the fuel, and what’s related with that. We break it down like that.

“The students have an idea of what their job will be before we leave for summer break, and they think about it all summer. When we come back, it is hands­down busy for every­ one, so we can get to the salt. Someone’s even in charge of packing the parachute. There’s a lot of work and the students love it — they step up and do what’s needed to get it done.”

After setting this record this past season, the UVU race car actually caught on fire and suffered some damage.

“It’s a mess right now,” Low says. “We’ve cleaned it up, but it will be a lot of work to get it back together.” Low says while driving he heard “a pop and a bang” in the turbocharger, so he knew “something was wrong.” By the time he shut it off, got off the track, and hit the fire extinguishers, “it was flaming pretty bad ... it was burning my seat belts and my fire suit got a little scorch on it. But we were all safe, so we were good. Now we just got to fix it.”

The students enjoy the teamwork involved in getting the 1969 El Camino onto the hard­ pan white surface for an extension of their academics.

UVU Automotive Technology

“What I was looking for from the team was more mechanical experience from working with cars,” student Lucas Smith says, “particularly race cars. And I’ve always been interested in learning how a team works together when putting a race car together.”

Fellow student Korteney Stewart says the racing team is a lot of fun. She says she considers team members like brothers, “and they don’t ever really judge you... they are all hard workers.”

Low says the racing team and the depth of research­type activities his students undertake keep his department running at a high level.

“I have had great success with engaged learning,” he says, “just getting them out of the classroom. Plus, I believe in doing under­ graduate research. We’ve gone to the national undergraduate research conference multiple times, doing things we tested on the car. Talk about engaged learning — that is what gets students going.”