The project, based on a higher-level engineering project designed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), uses common household items to build self-propelled cars that then compete for top honors in the class. While the original higher-level project incorporates testing several variables that may affect the performance of the car, the challenge of car construction was enough to keep these kids, their teacher, and Mr. Aaron (as the class affectionately called him) sufficiently engaged.
“At this early age, the children are still developing their motor skills at the same time they are learning how to read, write, do arithmetic, and [most importantly] follow instructions,“ says their teacher, Miss Bennett. “The last two years of doing this project have taught us a lot about how to put forth the information in a way that they can easily comprehend and follow.”
The cars themselves, constructed of a milk-carton chassis, with wheels made from push-pops, axles made from straws, a balloon power plant, all held together with several pieces of tape and glue, have also benefited from a couple years of evolution. “The previous versions of the cars used a chassis made from thick construction paper or paperboard that the children had to cut out, accurately fold, and tape together,” said Mr. Aaron. “While the kids were capable of all this, we found that there were inherent weaknesses. The chassis had to be enlarged to help the children handle the cars easier. This led to a weaker chassis overall. That, combined with what we have dubbed the “Slobber Factor,” resulted in several wetness-related chassis failures during, and even before, the final races.
“This year, we used eight-ounce milk cartons instead of the paper chassis. Since they are fully boxed they have much more structural rigidity, and the wax coating is an effective countermeasure to the wet demise of the earlier chassis.”
The project wasn’t just about building balloon-powered cars, though. Said Mr. Aaron, “We had a lot of classroom time to talk about racing and cars in general. We looked at videos, talked about the different types of racing, different types of tracks, and safety equipment that is necessary to keep the drivers and crews from serious injury. It was very evident which kids had family members that enjoyed racing, as they would chime in at every race-related question.”
Basic car construction and its relationship to what they were building was also discussed. When the time came to actually build the cars, the kids knew all the major components and could follow the instructions easily. Not all questions were easily answered, though. “I think the moment this year that I will always remember was when we were talking about how the engine sits in the chassis and one young boy asked why race cars had the engine in the rear [after looking at an HPD ALMS car] and street cars had the engine in the front,” Mr. Aaron recalled. “I was totally blown away. We had not discussed the concept of engine placement at all; it was just something he noticed. I didn’t know how to answer him. It was a very valid question with a complex answer about vehicle dynamics and balance that I struggled to find a simple way of explaining. I ended up using weight and friction to explain the concept.”
Mr. Aaron said he couldn’t claim all the credit, though. “I borrowed Mr. Miyagi’s hand-rubbing technique to teach them about friction and how more weight / force makes more friction and heat. I’m pretty sure they have never seen the original Karate Kid, so they’ll never know of my plagiarism.”
With all this combined, the racing this year was better than any before. The children were given balloons weeks in advance so that they could practice blowing them up, which is a challenge for those of such small lung capacity. When race day came, the kids were all charged up and ready to go. Races took place in bracket form, with the top four finishers competing against Mr. Aaron for the overall class win. With the balloons all inflated, and the cars perched on the starting line, the green flag was dropped and the cars took off. “The race across the short drag strip was so close that we had to actually review the video that the class assistant was taking in order to determine the winner,” claimed Mr. Aaron. “We have never had that many cars perform so well.”
At the end of the day, the champion – who won three races to get to the top – was Aidan LeVan, followed by Davis Perkins in second place. Mr. Aaron’s car came in third, but as his was only an honorary entry, the actual award was given to Abigail Montoya who finished just behind Mr. Aaron. “Despite the affection of the class, I felt oddly alone on the starting line, as all the students that were not in the finals were cheering for the students to beat me,” Mr. Aaron recalled.
The top three finishers received Honda Racing t-shirts and models of HPD’s sports cars for their achievements, along with HPD notebooks, knapsacks, INDYCAR posters, and Honda Racing stickers that were distributed to all the students courtesy of Honda Performance Development. It was a winning day for all, though, with all the kids cheering each other on and jumping around in jubilation at their achievements. In a contradiction of HPD’s extraordinary reliability, one car experienced an “engine failure” during the race when an overinflated balloon burst right at the start of the semi-finals. “The young boy was incredibly upset that his balloon popped, and thought it was unfair that he didn’t get to finish the race,” noted Mr. Aaron. “I guess in racing, some things never change.”