Race fosters kids’ engineering skills at Lacey Renewable Energy Fair

ckrotzer@theolympian.comMay 5, 2013 

Battery-powered race cars made of welded metal and bicycle wheels sped around the street and parking lots Saturday near Huntamer Park in Lacey.

The racers were high school students who put a semester’s worth of work into their cars. They were hoping to finish the hour-long race with the most laps.

The average car gets around the track about 40 times, said Sean Finney, Lacey Parks and Recreation supervisor.

The race was just one component of the 16th annual Lacey Renewable Energy Fair, which showcases energy beyond fossil fuels.

Electric and hybrid cars were lined up at the park, as well as booths boasting the use of alternative energy sources, such as solar power.

Finney said there has been an increase in the number of electric cars showcased at the event.

The event that caught most visitors’ eyes was the grand prix race. Students from River Ridge and Enumclaw high schools took part, but the strongest contingent was from Oregon.

Rochester residents Melissa and Matt Chambers brought their 5-year-old son, Mason, to watch the cars.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” Mason shouted, waiting for his favorite car to come by. “Where is the green one?”

“It’s coming, it’s just super slow,” his mom said.

While the couple are familiar with alternative energy, they were more interested in the race.

Mason said he wants to participate when he’s old enough.

“We told him when he was in high school, he could do that,” Melissa Chambers said.

The first race had already wound down to the last 10 minutes, providing an indicator of which teams managed their energy source the best. Some cars were still speeding past, while others were barely moving at a walking pace.

“At the beginning they are all going about 30 mph,” Finney said. “It’s a lot of technique. The crews are monitoring how fast they are going during the race and advising when they need to slow down or speed up.”

Mike Hodgert, a physics and engineering teacher from Willamette High School in Eugene, Ore., entered 12 race cars and 13 racers in Saturday’s event.

He also raced in — and won — the open division.

Hodgert has brought racers to Lacey since the event began in the Sears Parking lot nearly two decades ago.

Each race car is powered by up to 73 pounds of lead-acid batteries. The driver needs to account for another 180 pounds, so smaller participants must add weight to their car to make up the difference.

The average race car is worth about $2,000 and takes students a semester to build.

“Kids come in who never saw a wrench or worked with metal before,” Hodgert said. “We are teaching them to think, problem solve, and learn to work as a team.”

Hodgert said those in the engineering field think a student’s best introduction to the trade is to dive right in.

“It’s going by the seat of their pants,” Hodgert said. “Learning how to be a team, the basics.”

Chelsea Krotzer: 360-754-5476 ckrotzer@theolympian.com theolympian.com/thisjustin @chelseakrotzer

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