In his mind and heart, Quenton Olson, 23, has always been a mechanic and an engineer. He's always liked to tinker.
"I've rebuilt just about everything in my car," he said. Now, through a course at California State University, Northridge, Olson is taking what he's learned from years of fiddling with cars, motorcycles, airplanes and dune buggies and putting it to work.
Olson and 19 other mechanical engineering students are designing and building from scratch a half-scale version of an Indianapolis 500 racing car. Nicknamed the "mini-Indy," the project is part of a mechanical engineering course called senior design.
Students hope to have their car, now in its initial construction phase, built by late March.
In an attempt to simulate a real industrial project, the students split into teams that will take the project from start to finish. Some students work on cost projections, others handle fund raising, design and the actual construction.
"Every student will end up working in a particular area and on a particular assignment and, as a team, they will bring it all together," said Dr. Tim Fox, chairman of the mechanical engineering department.
"You really have to organize yourself. You have to communicate effectively with people," said Rene Salas, 23, who is working on the power train of the car.
The project is expected to cost $15,000. So far, the students have raised only $1,000, all from their own contributions. They are hoping to get the rest of the money from corporations, said Mario Spina, who is working on the financing.
Besides asking for cash contributions, the students hope to persuade some businesses to donate parts and materials. "Without support from the community and outside business sectors, this project won't go anywhere," said Spina, 23.
Yamaha Motor Corp. USA has already given the students an engine, he added.
Once the car has been built, it will be entered in national racing competitions that the Society of Automotive Engineers sponsors for universities.
CSUN first began taking part in the SAE competition in 1985, when students built a car for the mini-Baja races, said Fox. In that contest, students developed a car around an engine of a specific size.
In 1986, students repeated the mini-Baja construction and placed second in national races. Last year, they perfected the design and won first place in races against such schools as the University of Michigan and Purdue.
The CSUN students hope to win this year with their CSUN Formula SAE, the so-called "mini-Indy," in races May 19 and 20 in Detroit.
"We're making Northridge known for competing with the big guys," said Spina, "and beating them."
Part of the challenge of developing the "mini-Indy" is that the students have no prototype to guide them, said Olson, an engineering director on the project.
Instead, they are using what they've learned from their textbooks and their imaginations.
The students are designing the car more to handle sharp curves than to run at high speeds, Olson said. In the races, the car will be driven at an average of 45 m.p.h. All 10 students who worked on the project will get a chance at the wheel.
To win "would be unequaled by anything else I've done in school, and it's the same for most of the other people, to do something no one else has done before," said Olson.