Put a bunch of high schoolers behind the wheel of a car and things are bound to get a little crazy. Throw some elementary and middle schoolers into the mix with cars of their own and you’ve got mayhem. But that’s exactly what the Suncoast Science Center and The Faulhaber Fab Lab did one sunny morning this past March with the new RC Car Custom Open. Working with Fab Lab volunteers, students brought their scientific knowhow to bear and, through machines and materials provided by the Fab Lab, customized and optimized their own remote control racecars, resulting in 60 registered teams from 19 area schools assembled at the starting line on a Saturday to compete for cash prizes and Ringling College of Art and Design scholarships. 

Actually a brainchild of the Suncoast Science Center Sci Corps youth volunteers, the event was conceived as a way to combine experiential learning with hands-on fun. Competitors all began with the same standard remote control car provided and were then left to their own—and the Fab Lab’s—devices to customize the vehicle in terms of speed, handling and design, all of which would eventually be tested. After the idea was pitched to Executive Director Ping Faulhaber, the Center signed on and offered special workshops through January and February for registered teams as well as access to the many machines in the Fab Lab, and the project was underway.

On the aesthetic side, students became familiar with laser cutters and CNC routers, crafting sometimes elaborate appearances for their racers. But the real scientific challenge came in the many attempts to optimize speed for drag racing or handling and precision for the off-road and obstacle-strewn lap race. “Smaller wheels give you better acceleration, but with big wheels you get a better top speed,” says Dylan Hawley, a high schooler from Pine View whose team, We Build Cars Better Than Trump Builds Walls, won the high school drag races. With a 3D printer on-hand, many teams crafted new wheels for their cars, looking for a balance between speed, acceleration and stability. “There are a million possibilities,” says Hawley. “The Fab Lab is a great place.”

There were some provisions in place to ensure science and skill were the deciding factors—students were not allowed to swap out the motor with a more expensive model, for instance—but students were largely able to explore their options, including dabbling in the world of electronics and changing batteries. “But in doing so, they need to learn what the motor will handle and understand the electronics behind why a certain voltage will work or won’t work,” says Kati Burns, of the Suncoast Science Center. Her son Rocket even taught a special electronics class for competitors looking to add LED’s and other flashy adornments. 

But don’t go overboard, says Pine View seventh-grader Jacob Bobenmoyer from Team Shockwave, who took second place in the Most Beautiful category with a wooden ribcage-esque design topped with a living hinge made with the laser cutter. Additional design means extra care to balance raceability with aesthetic. “Don’t add too much weight trying to look good,” he advises. “And take weight out of the chassis, because it’s heaviest.” Other award-winning designs included an eco-friendly racer with wooden wheels and turf lining from a pair of homeschooled competitors and an impressive replica of Star Wars droid BB-8’s dome-shaped head. 

“I was looking for craftsmanship; I wanted to see how much effort the racers put into their vehicles,” says Dustin Juengel, exhibition curator at Art Center Sarasota and judge for the event. “I was very impressed.” All winners receive a monetary award of some sort, but design winners also won full or partial scholarships to summer workshops at Ringling College. “They put art into the competition because they recognize the importance of design,” says Ringling President Dr. Larry Thompson.

Come race day, it’s crowded but the morning is still cool. Drag races run down the middle of the asphalt, plastic racers rocket past the finish line and into the corrugated barrier. Contestants run in chattering gaggles, easy to spot in matching team shirts printed at the Fab Lab. Parents and community supporters bunch along the drag race track and make visibility difficult without jostling elbows. A pair of Fab Lab-crafted epees strung with flashing lights juts 15 feet above the crowd and marks the finish line. In an hour or so, the crowd will shift to an off-road track constructed with ramps, jumps, hairpin turns and a minefield of obstructions that the young drivers will have to navigate. Running consecutive heats tournament-style, winners make their way to the podium to receive prizes as the sun begins its latter arc, but spirits remain high all around, with winners and losers alike more concerned with what went well and what could be better than their respective places on the leaderboard.

“This is about experiential learning, teamwork and collaboration, and it’s been a wonderful experience and we’re very proud,” says Faulhaber to the gathered crowd at the close of this first, but already planned as an annual, event. “The Suncoast Science Center is here to serve and support. This is just the beginning.”