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Last June, Sam Parmett, Aedhan Loomis, Foster Collins and the rest of UPenn’s racing team traveled 21 hours from Philadelphia to Lincoln, Neb., for a racing competition. Their competition included established university racing teams that had their own semi-truck trailers and even a team from Brazil.

They had been working for several months, building Penn’s first electric racing car, a Student Automotive Engineers (SAE) Formula car — think mini Formula 1. There was only one problem: They had yet to successfully, uh, start the car.

“And even if we got the car running, nobody knew how to drive it,” Loomis added.

Amid the sleek modern and vintage cars at The Philadelphia Auto Show this week from brands like Honda, Ford and Chrysler, you’ll also find these mini Formula 1 racers, from Penn, Villanova and Temple. In the world of college SAE racing, all the teams are relative newcomers, with Penn trying to do what few teams can by getting an electric car to work this year and Villanova aiming to beat far more established teams in the gas car competition.

“I like to say we’re the underdogs,” Villanova’s Albert Montemuro said.

Know this about college SAE racing: It’s fun, but it’s not the type of fun most people want to have. It is “engineering fun.” When the car is almost finished, needing only body work and then test drives, anyone can enjoy it. But before that, students must design the car and make sure its various parts communicate with each other accurately. It can take forever to put one of them together.

Villanova has had a racing team since 2009. They usually participate in a major SAE gas car event every May in Michigan. As soon as the May event ends, the returning team members usually start working on the next year’s car. They hope to be done with the design by the end of summer and done actually building the car by January. They can then test the car and make adjustments until the big race in May. These gas-powered SAE formula cars reach speeds up to 105 mph, go from 0-60 in about three seconds and can take turns faster than Corvettes or Lamborghinis.

Villanova racers John Bellizzi and Montemuro explain the challenge of competing in these races. Teams from schools like Michigan, Cornell and Penn State have been racing since the late 70s and have more resources and funding. Teams that travel to the competition from Austria, Italy and Germany have almost unimaginable perks.

“Some team in Italy is at an old Fiat factory and have a race course on the roof,” Montemuro said.

Villanova practices in a school parking lot they get to use once a week until the school kicks them out at night.

“We try and get as much sunlight as we can,” Bellizzi said.

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In 2010, Villanova won first place nationally for most fuel-efficient car. Now they want to continue improving in the actual racing segment of the competition. Their goal this year is top 20 of over 100 teams.

Penn, with its electric car, faces a different kind of challenge. Though their car didn’t start last year, neither did the cars of eight of the other 11 teams, and Penn’s car came closer to starting than all of theirs.

The trouble stemmed from communication. They had Slovenian parts and German parts that they needed to make communicate with each other, and the codes and software they had designed weren’t bringing everything together.

The good news is the Penn team members finally got their electric car from the Nebraska competition working. Parth Patel helped write software that communicates with all the car’s various parts, and they drove it for the first time on Wednesday.

With that milestone finally reached, Collins, Parmett and Loomis think they’ll be able to take what they learned and apply it to the car they’ll enter this summer in Nebraska. They still have a long way to go, though. As they found out last year, getting these cars ready is every bit as challenging as studying for their toughest finals.

“I hadn’t pulled an all-nighter in college,” Collins said of the car preparation for the Nebraska competition last year, “and then I pulled three in a row.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...