In the hangar between the H parking lots and Baggett Stadium at 11:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, there is a hub of energy and noise. Electronic music blasts as team members shout back and forth over the roaring of an engine brought to life by the students standing around it. At the head of it all is a woman reviewing calculations and giving orders for the night’s agenda. This is Cal Poly’s first female technical lead in the Formula team’s history, Esther Unti.
Mechanical engineering senior Unti’s job consists of overseeing the entire design of the car. She is in charge of the engineering requirements, vehicle dynamics, progress, the schedule, testing and all technical aspects of the car. Most know her as ‘Team Dad” because of her straightforward and tough personality with a data-driven focus. Her job is usually split between three people, but this year she is doing the job by herself.
“We have always strive[d] to become more data- and testing-focused in our efforts,” Formula adviser John Fabijanic said. “[Unti] has definitely exemplified this attitude and is working to make this team the most serious we’ve ever had in this regard.”
Unti is joined by industrial engineering junior and team manager Dalt Lasell who the team members have dubbed “Team Mom.” The two are setting high expectations for the Formula team this year.
Where Unti is the face of the operation, Lasell works behind the scenes, managing all the team’s logistics and budget, while making sure the components of the car are built correctly. He also helps oversee the business team that manages valuable relationships with sponsors and the public. Lasell calls himself ‘Team Mom.’
“You can design a car, but after you actually design the car, you have to come to the challenge of actually making it,” Lasell said.
In the past, the team had a less focused and more light-hearted reputation. But this year, Unti leads a team of more than 100 engineers in the hopes of designing, building, testing and competing with two cars in the upcoming Nebraska competition Formula SAE Lincoln June 20 to 23. Such ambitious goals drove the team to include more women under Unti’s lead.
“With my time on the team, there has been a huge explosion of really sharp, really dedicated women on the team,” Unti said. “It’s huge. I’m thoroughly impressed and surprised by how many women we have on the team.”
Cal Poly stands out at competitions, according to Unti and Lasell. Most of the other teams are solely made up of white men, ages 18 to 24. The lack of diversity is not new for this sport and the pressures and stigmas are still being felt by women on the team. However, Unti said the environment of Cal Poly’s team is changing “big time.”
Mechanical engineering sophomore and Formula manufacturing lead Patrick O’Donnell attributed some of the team’s success in recruiting more women to join under Unti’s positive leadership.
“The women who join these things are amazing at what they do,” O’Donnell said. “Once there’s a few [women] who join and they’re doing it well, some stigma goes away.”
Being a woman in automotive engineering
Unti said joining the team helped her become more confident in her role as an automotive engineer. She recognizes that it is a predominantly male sport and is sometimes frustrated with the way she is treated. She said people are shocked when she can walk into an auto parts store and know exactly what she is looking for.
Unti said she is often disregarded as someone who knows nothing about torque specs. A torque spec is a specification that determines how much to tighten the bolts on a car.
“Don’t fucking tell me the torque spec,” Unti said. “In two years, I’m going to be picking out the torque spec for the car that you’re working on. Like, don’t even fuck with me.”
The comments, culture and community aspect of racing all contribute to the climate surrounding the sport, and Unti said there are still many challenges women in the field must deal with.
“There’s a lot that you have to get over, but it sort of just makes you more determined to show people what you can do,” Unti said. “When you see some things and when you get dismissed frequently, you really start to look out for other people who are being dismissed.”
It is more than an influx of women joining the team setting them apart this year. This year, the focus is more on teamwork and attainable goals amongst the many types of engineers on the team.
The biggest group of engineers on the team is mechanical engineers, who execute a wide variety of jobs. These jobs include building composites for the tube-like structure of the car, dealing with thermodynamics and heat transfer, and analyzing and fine-tuning the engine.
Aerospace engineering students are another vital part of the team because they apply their expertise of lift and wing shapes. Their job is to make sure there is just the right amount of downforce on the car to keep it grounded, while making it light enough to keep its speed.
Formula also has a whole team, made up mostly of electrical engineering students, nicknamed the “Electrons.” While many of these engineers deal with the electronic components of the vehicle, the team also consists of software engineering students, computer engineering students and computer science students to help write code for the car’s software.
A unified Formula team is looking ahead to the upcoming competition in Lincoln, Nebraska in June. Lasell said this is their most ambitious car yet because of the team of people working on it. Usually, teams bring only one car to competition. This year Cal Poly Racing will bring two.
“We’re driving to Lincoln, Nebraska and we’re leaving an hour after the seniors graduate,” Lasell said. “So they walk and then an hour later, they’re driving to Nebraska.”
Five years ago, the team did not even compete. Now, they hope to take first.