We were somewhere around Beneva on the edge of the Suncoast Science Center when the noise began. Hundreds of laughing children, screaming fans, the whir of dozens of tiny electric motors and the amplified voice of the announcer rising above it all—welcome to the 2nd annual RC Custom Car Open.

After last year’s successful debut,   the tournament-style contest returned to the Suncoast Science Center in April for another round of student-driven, science-minded competition. Organized primarily by a volunteer committee of ten high schoolers from across the county, the event brings together students from all grade levels in a battle of engineering, innovation and high-speed racing. Dividing into teams of two to four, each team receives a standard remote control car for them to re-engineer and design as they will, minus tampering with the motor itself. Working at the Fab Lab, competitors have access to tools like laser cutters and 3D printers to customize their car, with student and adult volunteers providing instruction and supervision when necessary. For some kids, it’s an opportunity to indulge a common interest in mechanics with friends, for others it may be an introduction. And that’s important, says Hadleigh Schwartz, an 11th grader from Pine View who volunteers on the organizing committee. “When I was younger, I wasn’t really interested in this type of stuff,” she says, “but the Fab Lab didn’t exist, so I never had the opportunity.” For more than four months, Schwartz met weekly with the rest of the committee to make sure the opportunity was there this year, and more than 200 students from 20 schools answered the call, for a total of 60 teams crowding the starting line come race day.

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With hundreds of dollars in cash prizes up for grabs, as well as scholarships to summer workshops with Ringling College of Art and Design and the Suncoast Science Center, teams competed for design awards as well as first place finishes on the two tracks designed by the student organizers. The Blind Race emphasizes teamwork, with the driver sitting blindfolded with the control as the rest of the team offers direction (read: shouts at the driver), while the Lap Race emphasizes smart driving and the competition’s theme—Monster Island—with a winding course dotted with roaming monsters and dangerous terrain. Design awards were given for the most innovative and most eco-friendly designs, as well as to the car that most embodied the year’s theme.

Coming out of the Blind Race, team Zombie Kong stops to catch their breath. A trio of second graders from Southside Elementary, this is their first year competing. “I was freaking out,” says Brady James, who wore the blindfold and drove, while teammates Max Ruzek and Charlie Rassrasool tried to steer him true. “I couldn’t hear anything they were saying and I was just randomly turning,” he admits and the team laughs. They didn’t win but they don’t care. And James didn’t stray too far from the agreed strategy. “Just go straight with full power,” grins Ruzek. They’re more excited about the car they’ve built, showing where they’ve laser cut this and painted that. The Lap Race approaches and the team takes a moment to talk strategy—catching air on the speed bumps is cool but loses time, they agree, and the volcano is too steep to scale. “This is an awesome place,” says Rassrasool, “and it’s only our first year doing this.” Will they come back next year? “Yes!” It’s unanimous.

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Spread out on a blanket, Lindsay Soss and Sydney Graham of team Griffin Claw sit out the Lap Race. A pair of seventh graders from Out-of-Door Academy with a mutual love for Harry Potter, they were always more interested in the creative aspect—and took home the middle school award for eco-friendly design at the end of the day. Removing the entire body of the car they started with, Soss and Graham built their own version of the Hogwarts Express largely from recycled Coke cans, bottle caps and repurposed Pop Tart boxes, complete with dementors and the owl Hedwig flying overtop. A solar panel on top powers the train’s lights and dry ice replicates a billowing smokestack when added. “We actually weren’t planning on doing any races,” says Soss, but they entered the Blind Race anyway. The aluminum tires that looked so good didn’t fare as well for lack of traction, but, to their surprise, got the job done. “When it finally started moving,” says Graham laughing, “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Lindsay! GO!”

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For team RYCE, named in homage to high-powered auto trends in the Japanese domestic market, the RC Custom Car Open is all about the engineering. A pair of self-professed car buffs in the eighth grade at Out-of-Door Academy, Cole Kirschner and Will Lahners took to the task with gusto. Their first instinct was to amp up the motor, taking it out of the frame, tweaking it and fitting it back into its housing. But upon hearing that doing so could disqualify the car, they opted for another approach—style. Laser printing a tail fin and affixing a turbo to the front for maximum intimidation at high speeds, the pair blitzed past the competition with a stripped-down frame with a roll bar and a spare tire, winning first place in both the Blind Race and the Lap Race. But though they came to win, they know there’s more to the day than prizes. “Teamwork and bonding with the other schools is the main point of this,” says Lahners, and Kirschner agrees. “The experience is better than the actual race,” he says. “It’s fun just to work on the cars and come out here.” They’ll both be back next year, but as freshmen and in the high school bracket. Neither seems worried.

In the high school bracket, competition is fierce, but team Monster Trucks pulled down a decisive victory in the Blind Race through a combination of savvy and minimalist engineering. “We basically ripped the car apart,” says Skye Ehrhart, a junior at ODA who entered the competition with fellow ODA juniors Ethan Bertrand and Lucas MacLeod, and lone sophomore Christian Ramos. “There was a lot of added stuff that didn’t need to be there, so we redesigned it using what we wanted to use and leaving out the unnecessary stuff.” Down to just a motor and a frame, the team 3D-printed four mammoth wheels, enabling the car to flip over and keep going, and even re-engineered the controller itself, installing a steering servo to allow more nuanced control. Knowing they couldn’t amp up the motor, team Monster Trucks found a clever workaround in installing an additional battery to give more power to the unchanged motor. They’ve all received STEM-oriented schooling at ODA, they say, but the great thing about the competition is seeing how many other students from other schools are exploring the same things, at all grade levels. “It really brought our community together,” says Bertrand. “There are so many elementary teams—hopefully they keep doing this until they’re in high school.” Ramos agrees, but offers a predictive warning: “In a couple years, they’ll have better cars than we have now.”