The engineering whizzes of California State University, Northridge, returned from the road last week, flush with triumph yet not altogether dull to the meaning of humility.
With hindsight, it was easy to see that CSUN's engineering tradition had fallen victim to overconfidence just the year before.
By way of background, CSUN was the school that startled the veteran tough guys of collegiate engineering in 1985, placing second the first time it entered the Western States Mini-Baja competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.
The idea of the competition is to design and build an off-road race car from scratch, starting with only a standard eight-horsepower engine, and then prove it in two days of competition in events covering appearance, speed, maneuverability, endurance, cost and design. The engineering group sponsors three of these competitions, in its West, Midwest and Eastern regions; CSUN this year attended two.
Last year, propelled by their 1985 success, members of the CSUN senior design class built a leaner, faster, prettier car. And they indulged some talk of victory.
To be honest, they could almost smell it.
Then, in the grit and heat of a San Luis Obispo dry river bottom, they paid the standard price for hubris.
Their $6,000 Baja racer--easily one of the snappiest-looking vehicles in the competition--let them down in the crucial two-hour endurance race when an inexpensive aluminum wheel hub disintegrated.
In a piece of marvelous pit work, the CSUN crew scavenged an axle assembly from their old car--taken along as a backup--and limped back into the race.
They finished with dignity, if nothing else.
This year's seniors studied their history well. They built a slightly heavier, tougher car and kept their fantasies to themselves.
That was smart.
In its first time out this year, the car was hobbled by drive-train problems. It placed 14th at San Luis Obispo, where the Western championships were held again this year.
That's not the end of the story, though. CSUN's team humbly took the beating as experience, solved the problem and headed for the heartland.
A team of five loaded the car onto a motor home and rumbled off to Ohio, where the Midwest region competition was being held at the Transportation Research Center, an automotive testing facility, in Bellefontaine.
It was there that they would find the tough old powers of automotive engineering, such as Rochester Institute of Technology and University of Wisconsin, Madison.
When unveiled before that group, the CSUN car, which can go about 40 m.p.h., got a buzzing welcome, faculty adviser Bruce Ryan recalled.
"You could tell it was a California car," Ryan said, with only the most restrained hint of smugness showing in his voice. "It definitely stood out as a very professionally designed and organized vehicle."
Up through the last--and most important--event, the car did well, though it didn't win in any category. However, among the 45 competitors, it finished no lower than seventh.
By his unofficial tally, Ryan figured that CSUN could win it in the two-hour endurance race.
West Virginia University proved to have the fastest car and was heading for first place overall, Ryan thought, until it nerfed itself.
That's a technical term, having to do with a safety innovation the boys from CSUN came up with this year.
Nerfs, as they dubbed them, are sturdy iron bars projecting from the frame of the car in front of each rear tire.
Experience had shown, Ryan said, that an aggressive opponent could ease his rear tire just in front of an opponent's and then slow down. The gnarly bumps on the balloon tires would engage and the opponent's tire would climb over the top of the aggressor's tire, causing the rear car to roll.
In theory, the nerf bars would engage the aggressor's tire first, causing his car to be thrown sideways.
As Ryan tells the story, the West Virginia car tested the nerf theory.
"The West Virginia driver met our safety device nerf bars," Ryan said. "The West Virginia driver ended up upside down in the only mudhole and he had many broken parts." The car, that is, he said.
West Virginia dropped back in the standings. Ryan thought CSUN had a chance to win the overall title, but couldn't call it.
Neither could the judges at first. The computer spreadsheet they were keeping score on computed a tie.
The scorekeeper wasn't satisfied. He went over the figures by hand, carrying out the division to a higher decimal place.
The results: Second place, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 637 points. First place, CSUN, 638.
Humility had had its day.