How this Columbus school won a national championship in electric car racing

·5 min read

Sure, winning a national championship in electric car racing boosted their attitude and comprehension in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. But these Allen Elementary School students told the Ledger-Enquirer the experience also gave them real-life lessons beyond the classroom.

Fourth-grader Rachael Weldon liked learning about the grace of “teamwork and leadership.”

And fifth-grader Brogen Long is grateful for the chance to show grit in overcoming hardship.

“If we never had this opportunity,” he said, “we might not have built self-confidence in ourselves and learn to keep pushing.”

Rachael and Brogen are among the 10 students and three coaches from Allen who finished their first season in Greenpower Racing atop the Goblin division (grades 4-6) out of 58 teams from four states (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas).

The other Allen team members are fifth-graders Joseph Lee Bunkley, Ryder Davis, Liam Dittman, Allen Durrah, Anna McQuien and Ryder Morrison, fourth-graders Kaleb Martin and Paxton Mathis, head coach David Hardegree and assistant coaches J.P. Aguirre and Marie Jackson.

Allen clinched the 2022 title April 30 at Milton Frank Stadium in Huntsville, Alabama, after accumulating the most points through eight events from the fall to the spring. Phenix City Elementary School finished sixth in the national Goblin standings.

“Super impressive”

Each event in Greenpower Racing has four competitions: drag, slalom and circuit races, plus the presentation, when the students show judges what they learned.

“It’s super impressive,” Aguirre told the L-E. “… I’m just amazed they can remember (the car’s details) at that age. When I was their age, I wasn’t thinking about circuit parts.”

Also impressive: winning the championship in their first season, said Greenpower USA Foundation executive director Drew Sparks, the aptly named leader of the not-for-profit organization based in Huntsville, which started as a pilot program in 2011, incorporated in 2014 and began the Goblin division in 2015.

“This achievement was well earned by the team,” Sparks told the L-E in an email. “The students did a remarkable job showing up throughout the year and doing the little things that make all of the difference. The teachers and mentors were student-focused in their approach to learning about how to be successful at the events and relaying it to their team. It also shows the relationship between the team and the school and community to achieve the national championship.”

What’s a Greenpower Racing Goblin car?

Similar in size to a go-kart, the battery-powered Greenpower Racing Goblin car comes in a kit and is designed to take students approximately 15 hours to build. Coaches are allowed to only supervise the process, Aguirre said.

Allen team members met after school once per week to build their car and practice. Aguirre appreciates the students for “working the best they could, always looking for ways to get better.”

The car’s maximum speed is 10-13 mph. A pusher gives the car momentum to start. Other than the driver, the rest of the team serves as the pit crew during races.

“Whether they were a pusher or driver or a designer of the car, they saw what it meant to come together as a whole to be successful,” Allen principal Felicia Thompson told the L-E. “… This has been an awesome opportunity to have some hands-on engagement as it relates to education.”

Allen’s car number 67 is in honor of the year the school opened. Its paint scheme is a tribute to the school’s eagle mascot and the building’s brick exterior.

“A little bit of panic”

Allen’s car had brake trouble and crashed into the barricade at the race in Huntsville. But the pit crew fixed the problem.

“I knew we could fix it,” Anna said. “We’ve crashed before and fixed it.”

Assistant coaches J.P. Aguirre helps Anna McQuien remove her racing helmet. 05/12/2022
Assistant coaches J.P. Aguirre helps Anna McQuien remove her racing helmet. 05/12/2022

No wonder the back of their team shirts declares this motto: Build it. Race it. Break it. Fix it.

“The team banded together and checked it out, and we were able to finish,” Aguirre said. “That was a key moment. … There was a little bit of panic, but everything we’ve been through this season, we were able to overcome it.”

Greenpower Racing’s origin in Columbus

The Greenpower Racing program in Muscogee County resulted from two years of planning after a local resident notified the Columbus Sports Council about the opportunity in 2019. Council executive director Merri Sherman declined to name that donor because his $200,000 gift was given anonymously, she said.

The money enabled the council to host five races and fund 12 local teams, six each in the Goblin and F24 Intermediate (grades 6-8) series, representing Muscogee County (Allen and St. Marys Road elementary schools and Arnold and Eddy middle schools) and Phenix City (South Girard School and Phenix City Elementary), the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Chattahoochee Valley, the YMCA of Metropolitan Columbus and the Columbus Parks & Recreation Department.

Teams need approximately $20,000 to participate in the F24 series and $10,000-$15,000 to participate in the Goblin series, Sherman said, to cover expenses for the car kits from Greenpower ($2,500 for Goblins and $5,000 for F24s), annual membership fees for the curriculum ($200 for Goblins, $400 for F24s) plus travel costs for out-of-town competitions in LaGrange, Huntsville and Oxford, Alabama.

Sherman expected hosting the Greenpower Racing events would generate tourism revenue, and she expected having local students participate in the competitions would enhance their STEM learning, “but the thing that’s most exciting to me is seeing actual lives change and the spark that ignited in these kids about things they want to do when they grow up. That, to me, has been the cherry on the top.”

Local teams that qualified for the Greenpower Racing F24 series national championship event May 21 at Talladega Superspeedway are Columbus Parks & Recreation and South Girard School. Local teams from the YMCA and Eddy Middle School were invited as well, Sherman said.

To help more local teams participate — possibly expanding into the F24 Advanced (grades 9-12) series — and to help Columbus host more Greenpower Racing events, Sherman encourages inquiries about donations and volunteering by calling the council at 706-660-1996.