Engineering Alum Amy Dunford Races Record-Breaking Motorcycle

Samueli School alumnae Amy Dunford races the Red Baron, a supercharged 1985 motorcycle, pictured here with additional sidecar added to qualify for new records.

April 2, 2024 – Anteater engineer Amy Dunford ’14 is breaking records racing the fastest gasoline-powered 350cc pushrod motorcycle in the world. Dunford rides and co-owns the Red Baron, a supercharged 1985 Moto Morini 3 1/2 motorcycle, along with her mentor Robert “Smitty” Smith, a volunteer adviser for UCI’s Anteater Racing.

Dunford was exposed to STEM at an early age because her father was an engineer, but her natural passion for cars drove her interest in mechanics.

“When I was in sixth grade, I heard the exhaust of a newly released Lamborghini and thought it was amazing,” she said. “That was the first moment that I knew I wanted to be a mechanical engineer and understand how that awesomeness was created.”

Dunford attended UCI for bachelor’s degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering from 2010-14. When she was a sophomore, her father was killed in a car crash, and she joined the school’s race car team the following year as an escape from her grief. Smitty introduced his Red Baron project to the racecar team shortly after. Dunford supported Smitty at a few races, and officially became the crew chief in 2014.

“Racing became my happy place,” said Dunford, who didn’t miss a Red Baron race for her first four years working with Smitty. “Anytime I had a spare moment on campus and knew Smitty was in the lab, I would be his apprentice.”

Smitty chose the Red Baron’s base motorcycle, a 1985 Moto Morini, because it is entirely mechanical and has a six-speed transmission instead of the five-speed transmission typical of its era. The bike is also known for being stable around corners and dependable on rough terrain, key aspects when hitting top speeds.

Dunford (left) and Smitty competed at Bonneville Salt Flats last August.

Dunford stayed at UCI until 2017, earning a master’s degree and teaching introductory engineering classes. She then moved to Indiana for a master’s degree in engineering education, followed by a job at New York University. During her absence, fellow UCI alumnus Vaz Frnzyan ’18 became the crew chief. Dunford became the rider of the Red Baron in 2021, traveling long distance to make the races. In 2022, she returned to Southern California permanently to become a test engineer for Hyundai. Since, she has completed three racing seasons with Smitty and Frnzyan, as well as engineering alumnae Diana Terska’19.

“The number of female competitors at events like Bonneville is in the single digits or low teens, and female race engineers that are 100% involved in designing and developing the race vehicle like Amy are extremely rare,” said Smitty. “I'm proud that we have been able to expose many of our engineering students, both male and female, to a real motorsport experience.”

The Red Baron team is part of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) Gear Grinders land speed racing club. Since the motorcycle is one of only a few supercharged bikes worldwide in its class, the Red Baron usually competes individually at events to break previous records and earn points for the club. This past season became their best so far when the Red Baron finished second in the SCTA Motorcycle Championship. Racing events take place once a month from May to November at El Mirage Dry Lake in the central Mojave Desert and once a year in August at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and they feature a variety of motorcycles, trucks, sports cars and other vehicles attempting records. Smitty believes the Red Baron team’s most impressive engineering feat is the 126-mph record Dunford set at El Mirage in October 2021.

Crew chief and mechanical and aerospace engineering alumnus Vazgen Frnzyan (left) and Dunford celebrate a record at El Mirage Dry Lake.

“We developed an 87-mph street bike into a 126-mph race bike with zero destructive testing while the racing norm is to break engine parts and upgrade the broken bits until you run out of money or time,” said Smitty. “We, on the other hand, had almost no parts availability and a very small budget to work with so we used historical knowledge and mathematics to establish the reliable power levels we operate at currently.”

During the winter months when water in the lake bed keeps the team from racing, they tackle mechanical repairs and upgrades. Since last November, Dunford has spent weekends replacing rusted parts, testing new designs and cleaning salt from the bike’s interior after the Bonneville event last August. She is also working on swapping engines and introducing a chemical fuel system to allow the Red Baron to qualify for other classes and pursue new records.

“Mechanical engineering gets us up to speed, and aerodynamics limits our top speed,” said Dunford. “The best reward is when all the tinkering and work that we do in the lab pays off at the track.”

The Red Baron’s 2024 race season will kick off at El Mirage on May 18. Events are open to the public and race information and technical upgrades are updated on the team’s Instagram account. Short and long-term student opportunities to assist with aero designs, engine modifications and other engineering improvements are available.

“Everyone helps each other, and the events have a very collaborative nature,” said Dunford. “The Red Baron is an educational platform, and I’d like to carry that on by continuing to share it with students as an opportunity to get involved in motorsports.”

– Lilith Christopher