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Monday, May 10, 2021

The Checkered Flag: Gator Motorsports drives all kinds

Gator Motorsports competes in the Formula SAE competition every year

Gator Motorsports competes in the Formula SAE competition held annually at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan.
Gator Motorsports competes in the Formula SAE competition held annually at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan.

There are a number of places that new UF students can go the moment they hit campus.

They can go to the Reitz Union, eat with friends in the food court or buy new Gator merch at the bookstore. They can get some sun at the Plaza of the Americas or visit the mighty Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and bask in its glory.

When Alejandro Navarrete came to UF from the country of Colombia, he had no such first impressions. Instead, the moment he got to campus, he went to a small garage on Gale Lemerand Drive.

It’s the home of Gator Motorsports, a team that competes in the Formula SAE competition held annually at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. And it was exactly what Navarrete was looking for.

* * *

Navarrete grew up in Colombia and developed a love of Motorsport from a young age. Enamored with the high speeds of Formula 1 racing, he knew from early on that he wanted to be a part of the motorsports industry: And later, that he wanted to be an engineer.

“Coming from one idea, and then developing it and creating it and making it real,” Navarrete said. “Those are the things I really like.”

He wanted to make that motorsport dream a reality. When he began researching ways to make it happen, he learned about Formula SAE.

The competition, called FSAE for short, features around 120 teams. There are eight categories judged out of a potential of 1,000 points: Presentation, engineering design, cost analysis, acceleration, a skid-pad test to showcase the car’s cornering ability, an autocross section, the overall efficiency of the car and an endurance portion.  

So when it was time to decide on an American university, he had one central criteria: It had to have a Formula SAE team.

He applied to many such universities, and many accepted him. But one of those universities was in a state he liked — Florida — and had a motorsports team with the impressive pedigree and results that he was looking for.

That school was UF. And that team was Gator Motorsports.

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“When I learned about the University of Florida and how the team has placed in the past and how good we are, I just had that click in my mind,” he said. 

The formula car GMS enters into the competition is no simple machine. It boasts a 2007 Honda CBR600RR motorbike engine, putting out 72 horsepower at 11400 revolutions per minute. It can go zero to 60 miles per hour in just around three seconds, and its aerodynamic package can generate 100 pounds of downforce at 35 miles per hour.

But when he first walked into the GMS garage, the car wasn’t there.

It was undergoing testing, typically done at Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park in Starke, Florida. Only the chief engineer was even in the building at the time, but he showed Navarrete some of the aero package in the front and rear wing. Even that was enough to put a swell in his chest.

“I just get hit, like hit with that emotion,” he said. “And that sentiment of like ‘Wow, this is happening,’” he said.

Navarrete found a place where GMS needed him. He started working with the brakes, and then dabbled with the suspension before working on the car’s intake and exhaust.

“That was kind of my first year, trying to understand what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be,” he said. “Just understanding everything, learning everything.”

With the help of department leads and mentors, he found something that stuck: The ergonomics department.

The ergonomics department focuses on how the driver can sit comfortably in the car. They work with what the driver uses: the steering wheel and pedals.

But that wasn’t the only side he would get involved with. As Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton once touted, “cash is king” in motorsports. The business side of GMS is just as important as the engineering side, and on top of working in the ergonomics department, Navarrete is the business lead at GMS.

He doesn’t work alone on the business side of things, though. He has a partner, Olivia Miller, and her love for the team budded at an early age, too.

* * *

Miller didn’t grow up with a love of motorsport like Navarrete did, but she did grow up with a love for GMS. Her older sister Emily attends Florida, and Miller toured the school with her during her sophomore year of high school.

The bay doors of that small garage on Gale Lemerand Drive were open. The car was on display, and she was hooked from the moment her eyes fell upon it.

Miller turned to her dad to tell her how cool she thought the operation was, and he took her to go talk to the team and check out the garage. 

They did, and the shop equipment and the car captured Miller’s heart.

“That night to myself, I was like wow, if I go to UF, if I'm 100% joining this team,” she said. “Because this is an experience I want, this is the coolest thing.”

That’s not to say that Miller didn’t have any experience in engineering before she got to Florida. She initially planned to study art, but she joined an engineering class in high school and discovered that she loved making things with her hands.

Miller got to UF in August of last year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That didn’t stop her from getting to GMS, a place she swore she’d end up if she made it to the university.

“As soon as I could, I reached out to them and I was like, ‘Hey, I'm on campus,’” Miller said.  

Miller helps Navarrete on the business side of things as a recruitment lead and a business team member. She puts her engineering skills to use in the chassis department. 

Women in STEM are far less common in the field than men are, but Miller feels right at home.

“No one treats me any differently, which is what I want,” she said. “I'm just another student, another engineer who wants to learn about this car.”

Both Miller and Navarrete work under team captain Daniel Tremblay. And for Tremblay, motorsports isn’t just a passion: It’s his way of life.

 

* * *
 

Daniel Tremblay’s father Sylvain ran a motorsports team, Speedsource, for five years before Daniel was born. And as Daniel  grew up, he remained a constant presence in the paddock.

“I always wanted to help at the racetrack,” Tremblay said. “Cleaning bodywork, helping out with the truck and cleaning off the tires after they were used, little things like that.”

Eventually, he began to spot for the team: He’d have the radio and tell the drivers what was happening around the track. With a team like SpeedSource, it was often victory.

SpeedSource started out by building Mazda RX-7’s for pro-am racing. When the Mazda RX-8 came out in 2004, the racing team partnered with the car company to compete in the Grand-Am Cup ST competition. SpeedSource won back-to-back titles at the Cup ST competition in 2005 and, most notably, the GT Class at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2008 and 2010.  

Speedsource shut down in 2017 while Tremblay was a junior engineer at the race team. He initially planned to go to college and then help the team on race weekends, but once that was no longer an option, he needed somewhere else to go. 

That somewhere was GMS, a team that he was already familiar with: GMS went to SpeedSource’s facilities and sponsored the team. A GMS alum was a lead engineer of SpeedSource when Daniel was growing up.

“I’ve been exposed to current and former SAE kids since I was young,” Tremblay said. “So I knew I wanted to go here.”

When Tremblay got to GMS, he knew immediately where he wanted to go: The suspension team. He became the suspension lead and testing coordinator his sophomore year, but he put a large amount of effort into the team that caused his grades to drop.

“I kind of burnt myself out a little bit,” he said.

Tremblay was in line to become co-captain of the team his junior year, but once he got his final exam grades, he had to step away from the team for two semesters.

At least, he tried. He began to mentor the other department leads and taught them not to make the same mistakes he did.

“I said I was off, but from the background, I still wanted to be involved,” he said. “I took on more of a mentorship role.”

Tremblay came back spring 2020. A week after the car was finished and testing began for the upcoming FSAE competition, the university shut down.

“I think the chapter was closed, at least, because we got the car done and we were all very proud of what we’d done,” he said. 

Tremblay, though, looked at the positive: His tenure as captain started sooner, and GMS didn’t wait until the new year began to get its next car ready. And since it did, he taught his team with a simple mantra.

“Focus on the little things,” he said. “There’s a lot of little bits on the car that you don’t see on first glance, or even second glance.”

 

* * *

 

Navarrete has done a Co-Op with BMW and plans to start an internship with Michelin soon. But his ultimate dream is to become a motorsports team principal like his idol, the Mercedes-AMG F1 team’s Toto Wolff. 

Tremblay continues to spot for other IMSA teams and is set to become a data engineer with Riley Motorsports in Mooresville, North Carolina, and reunite with former SpeedSource engineer and GMS alum Marcus Shen.

For now, though, they have a competition to get ready for.

The team’s previous car, the F20, is eligible for this year’s FSAE competition, but the team decided to make an entirely new car instead. GMS is about two-and-a-half to three weeks away from completing the car. The pandemic slowed down external suppliers, but competition is pushed back this year, so GMS has more time to test the car.

Tremblay, a senior, is leaving GMS and, once again, won’t be there to see the car run. But he’s confident that his team will get the job done.

“From a personnel perspective at competition, we’ll be limited,” he said. “But I think that’s okay, given the amount of time the new members have had to develop over the summer.”

Some of those new members, like Miller, are excited for their first competition and to show off their hard work.

“Seeing all these teams and seeing what they’ve done and how they’ve done it differently from you, that’s the most exciting part of the competition for me,” Miller said.

Gator Motorsports finished 24th at the 2019 competition — a far cry from the bracket it usually falls in. In response, the team has steadily begun to make design changes to the car, in hopes that it will make its way back into the top 10, where it believes it belongs.

The team changed the wheel size from 13 inches to 10 inches and redid the car’s entire suspension. This year, the team also changed the chassis’ material, switching from a steel space frame to monocoque carbon fiber.

“It was the most major design change our team had done in the past several years,” Tremblay said of 2020. “The culture had to change a lot to allow that to happen.”

This could be a prime year for GMS to get back to form. European teams typically dominate FSAE — a European team has appeared in the top 3 for the last five years, and they swept the podium in three of those years.

However, European squads won’t attend this year’s competition, and the general pool of North American competitors is much smaller. Tremblay stressed these factors give the team a chance to place well within the top 10 and make the team all the more excited to head to Michigan for the competition.

“We are certainly expecting to finish in the top 10, but we would really love the opportunity to compete for a top five,” Tremblay said. “A little bit of luck goes our way here and there, and we can definitely end up on the podium, I think.”

No matter where they end up though, the crew hopes to see their hard work hit the track: Hard work that Navarrete stresses comes from all kinds of people.

He stressed that anyone, no matter who they are, can come to GMS. And when they do, they’ll be welcomed with the opportunity to learn like so many others have.

Contact River Wells at rwells@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @riverhwells

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