You can detect a mix of disbelief and excitement in Dale Wagner’s voice as he describes the senior design project he just completed as part of his mechanical engineering degree requirements. His was not the textbook project — which in hindsight made it the ideal mechanical engineering project. For nearly 10 years, Wagner had been developing in his restless mind something that had never been done: a four-stroke outboard marine engine with turbopower.
It’s the type of idea that would require a motor company to invest millions of dollars, a decade of research, and dozens of senior-level engineers working together. Wagner thought he could do it in less than 12 months with this: random parts collected from junkyards, a little boat he cobbled together like Legos, a team of seven UCF students, and a budget of slightly more than zero dollars.
“Farmers often make the best engineers,” Wagner says, referring to the fact he grew up harvesting fruit and raising palm trees on his family’s farm on Pine Island in southwest Florida. “On a farm you have to fix things with no money. That’s how I learned to love innovation.”
Wagner exudes the rare combination of humility and boldness. He’s the guy classmates turned to when they needed someone to talk then-UCF President Dale Whitaker into visiting UCF’s Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) two years ago. He convinced his skeptical instructor to allow him to build a marine-engine for his senior project, despite it being outside the guidelines. And he proved that you should never shy away from making a phone call, no matter how long the odds that it might be answered, let alone fruitful.
Wagner admits he didn’t even want to go to college. But his parents thought he should earn a degree, so he went to Florida Gulf Coast University because of its proximity to the farm. To make the daily 70-mile roundtrip commute affordable, he claimed an old discarded truck from “a guy’s backyard” and built an engine that ran for free on leftover vegetable oil from an Asian restaurant and used motor oil from service stations. He named the truck “Ratrod.”
Although Wagner was the perfect candidate for engineering, he instead majored in business at FGCU because he didn’t feel up to engineering’s math requirements. To satiate his thirst for tinkering, he built a 15-foot boat at night and worked part-time at a Honda Marine dealership where he often dissected motors and wondered, “What if they did this? Or this?”
He also heard about fellow business students interning in the types of office settings where a farmer’s heart and head might be unsettled. So upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business management, Wagner, the same guy who didn’t want to go to college, decided on his next step: He’d start over. This time as an engineering student at UCF.
“I’d heard about the industry support for engineering students at UCF,” he says. “Plus I liked the idea of building cars and exercising business management skills in the SAE program.”
The wheels of innovation kept turning during an internship at Boston Whaler, which designs and manufactures boats in Volusia County. Wagner would see drawings for wild concept boats and think, “Why do they water these down? They should just make one.”
When it came time to propose his senior project in January 2019, he saw it as an opportunity to put some of the crazy thoughts he’d mentally gathered into practice. Specifically, he wanted to integrate turbochargers into a 4-stroke outboard so it would produce at least 500 horsepower (comparable motors produce 225 hp) at less than 700 pounds (compared with 700-1,200 pounds).
“My instructor was skeptical,” says Wagner. “He didn’t think I’d be able to finish.”
What followed is a picture of two mindsets — engineering and business — being perfectly wed. Wagner assembled a team of students who enjoy digging their hands into messy stuff. His former boss at the Honda dealership donated two motors, one for tests and one as a mockup for fabricating parts. The team visited scrap yards and spent hundreds of hours designing, calculating, discovering, failing, and re-designing.
Just when they knew they were onto something, they ran out of what little money they had. “We just needed access to a few things, like spare parts and a bigger boat for the motor,” Wagner says.
He made a shot-in-the-dark phone call to Honda’s secretive research and development test site in Grant, Florida. He wasn’t even sure the phone number he’d seen on a photo online was valid.
“The call went through to voicemail,” Wagner says, “and I got cut off before I could leave a callback number.”
An hour later Wagner’s phone rang. Chad Nere ’11MBA, principal engineer at Honda’s Grant facility, heard just enough in the message to raise some intrigue.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten a call like that,” says Nere, who earned a master of business administration from UCF. “Dale obviously had a passion for his project. I was impressed with his perseverance.”
Nere offered access to motor parts, to a 24-foot Robolo, and to Honda’s test center when the team was ready to take the turbocharged motor for a trial run. A few months later, Wagner and his team arrived with a contraption that turned heads on the highway all the way from Orlando to Grant. With Nere onboard, they ran the motor hard for over an hour. Test projections indicate 600 horsepower on a 661-pound engine, according to Wagner.
“It’s strictly a proof of concept, but give Dale credit,” says Nere. “He dreamed up something and made it happen.”
After graduating on Dec. 14, members of Wagner’s team will go out to become the next generation of helicopter engineers and turbine-engine designers. Wagner himself will start working for Boeing on a spacecraft that can exit and enter space daily. He calls it “a miniature version of the space shuttle.” When he visits the farm on Pine Island, family and friends will want to know all about the unchartered territory he’s helping to reach. But they’ll also want him to roll up his sleeves and fix a few things while he’s home.
Story by Robert Stephens, UCF Today