Accelerating Excellence: Behind NovaRacing’s Resurgence

VU15 racecar completed

For the members of Villanova University’s NovaRacing team, the thrill of the race was more than just crossing the finish line. It was the culmination of months of meticulous planning, late nights in the lab and an unwavering determination to learn from past mistakes.

A year after receiving a disappointing DNF (Did Not Finish) at the 2023 Formula SAE competition, NovaRacing’s dedicated crew of students from across the University rallied together to design and construct a racecar that secured an impressive ninth place overall finish out of 120 international teams at the annual competition in Michigan in May.

The team's resurgence this year was fueled by a shared commitment to generate new and creative solutions for VU15, the name of this year’s car. One of the team’s main goals was to make the car – which is built from scratch each season – lighter so it could accelerate faster. The team brainstormed innovative ways to shed weight, like using a lightweight wrap instead of heavy paints to decorate the exterior.

Will Stoval ’24 COE, NovaRacing’s 2023-24 team captain, explained that the other major goal for the team was maintaining the car’s reliability. “It doesn't matter how fast your car is if it doesn't actually cross the finish line,” Stoval said. “So, we wanted to make a car that was strong, that could take a beating and still keep going. And ultimately, that's what we created.”

The final iteration for VU15 was a car that weighed 40 pounds lighter than last year’s design. This major improvement was celebrated at the unveiling of the racecar at Villanova before the team headed off to Michigan to compete. Stoval hyped the crowd with an enthusiastic speech, calling VU15 “50 percent beauty, 50 percent beast.”

Aside from the physical aspects of the car the team wanted to improve, NovaRacing’s leadership placed an emphasis on increasing involvement, which had dwindled slightly following the results of the 2023 competition. “We really tried to build the team back up and make us a family - not just kids that get together to build a racecar, but actually friends who enjoy doing what they're doing and learning together,” said Luke Truscott ’25 COE, chief engineer of NovaRacing.

Having teammates who feel like family is extremely important for this group, considering how much time they spend together over the course of the year. NovaRacing’s members often spend late nights and weekends in the lab working on the car, especially as they get close to competition time. But it’s this careful attention to detail and strong desire to improve their vehicle that helped lead the team to a top-10 finish this year.

Stephen McGill, PhD, assistant teaching professor of Mechanical Engineering at Villanova and faculty advisor for NovaRacing, describes the group as a “measure twice, cut once” kind of team. “They knew which failures they wanted to mitigate,” he said. “They knew how they wanted to present to the various judges and they made sure to be very prepared.”

This intense preparation led to VU15 passing its tech inspection on the first try, which has never been done in the team’s history. To accomplish this feat, the team accelerated their timeline for completion of the car so they could run mock inspections and work in additional practice runs with their drivers to ensure everyone felt comfortable behind the wheel by competition time.

Then came the question of “who gets to drive?” It’s one that lingers on the minds of all NovaRacing members once the racecar is built and ready to begin tests. The team hosts an “Everybody Drives Day” each spring where members who have been involved with the group for at least a year can sit in the driver’s seat and test out the car. With each driver, NovaRacing’s leadership looks for raw talent – who can drive the fastest, who has the instincts for driving and who wants to push the car to its limits. From there, four team members are selected to drive and are assigned to various events within the competition, including acceleration and skidpad, where the car performs a figure-eight maneuver.

Most team members choose to participate in “Everybody Drives Day,” which can be a blessing and a curse. The team is only allowed to have a few drivers every year, so the group’s leaders try to emphasize that building and working on the car is just as important as being the one behind the wheel. According to Stoval, “you have to intrinsically want the car to go fast; you have to want to win even if you're not necessarily putting the visor down and putting the driver gloves on yourself.” 

VU15 Racecar at SAE Competition

Cross-Campus Collaboration

Although Villanova’s College of Engineering sponsors NovaRacing and provides them with lab facilities to work on their designs, team members come from all across campus. Engineering students as well as students from Villanova’s five other Colleges are encouraged to join the team and learn about how to build the car from the ground up as well as contribute to other sectors of the team like operations, finance, communications and social media. The team operates with University values in mind, using an open-forum model where all ideas and perspectives are heard and considered. It is these differing perspectives that can sometimes be the key to unlocking a new solution for the vehicle.

Owen O’Loughlin ‘24 VSB, NovaRacing’s 2023-24 finance lead, knew he wanted to join the club before starting as a first-year student at Villanova, even though he is not an engineer. O’Loughlin graduated this spring with a double major in finance and math, and often used skills he learned from pursuing those disciplines to bring new ideas to the team. From his business classes, O’Loughlin learned project management and interpersonal communication skills that guided him when working amongst team leadership and planning with event coordinators on competition day. His math expertise lent precision to the team that his colleagues found encouraging as they sought to improve on their designs and strive for the best.

O’Loughlin committed to learning more about engineering throughout his years with NovaRacing, bouncing around between the aerodynamics and manufacturing divisions of the team to hone his skills in multiple areas, and was even selected to be one of this year’s drivers of VU15. “Engineering is not in my coursework. I do NovaRacing because I love it,” he said. “For me, it’s like an escape. It’s something I choose to do completely independently of school.”

This type of experience for each team member is one that the club’s leaders try to cultivate – that any student can join and learn the skills necessary to contribute to a successful racecar each year, regardless of background. As Truscott emphasized, “Regardless of your major, all of us solve problems every day, whether that's money problems or actual car engineering problems. To me, that means we’re all engineers.”

NovaRacing Group Photo

High Risk, High Reward

After long hours and sleepless nights of work, the final moments of VU15 completing the race – and placing in the top 10 – made it all worth it. “The most rewarding part of this whole experience was seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces and seeing people fighting back tears after we crossed the finish line. So much work has gone into this car, and we have sacrificed so much,” said Stoval.

For Truscott the best part of the season lies in the teamwork and collaboration that led up to the success of this year’s car. “You can see the glow in people's faces when they recognize what it means to be an engineer, what it means to go through the hard work of bringing their own creations and designs to life and then watching the car work and seeing your fellow team members drive it. It’s a unique experience I don’t think I’ll ever have again.”

As the checkered flag waved and VU15 crossed the finish line, younger team members had already set their sights on an even loftier goal for VU16. “We hadn’t even left Michigan and the team was saying, ‘We made top-10, but we really should be top five,’ said Jason Keeley, a Mechanical Engineering lab technician for the College of Engineering who traveled with the team to Michigan. “They want to improve their spot next year and they’re already thinking about what they want to improve about the car.”

With a renewed sense of confidence and camaraderie, the team is eager to build upon their successes and continue pushing the boundaries of what's possible. One thing is certain – this tight-knit group of problem-solvers will approach next year’s challenges with the same drive and passion that propelled them to a top-10 finish this year.