One of the most noticeable things at a recent race at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola might have been what was missing. The roar of the engines you’d typically hear at the beginning of an auto race was, on this day last month, noticeably absent.
That’s because this was an Electrathon America race, and that roar was replaced by the hum of electric cars.
A team from Mary G. Montgomery High School has competed in the event for the last four years. This year, the team posted its best finish ever, third place overall, in a national Electrathon event at Five Flags.
According to its website, Electrathon vehicles are single-person, lightweight, aerodynamic, high efficiency, electric vehicles with three or four pneumatic tires. They must meet specific design and safety rules. They are powered by standard non-leaking lead acid battery packs not exceeding 73 pounds.
The Mary Montgomery team’s cars have been clocked as fast as 60 miles per hour, but Electrathon America races are contests of sustained power more than speed. The winner is the car that completes the most laps around the track in an hour without recharging.
“You need a strategy, because it’s not like you can go and fill up,” Mary Montgomery team member Justin Driver said. “You have to pace yourself with your battery life.”
Mary Montgomery is one of about 10 high schools in Alabama invited to participate in Electrathon America, and it’s become one of the centerpiece events in the engineering track of its STEAM Signature Academy.
“I see them seeing a connection between what’s presented in the school and the real world,” said Mary Montgomery science teacher John Morrow, one of the team’s sponsors. “I see them learning the importance of following instructions and teamwork, finding out first-hand what can go wrong if there’s not an order, and if you don’t follow through on certain tasks.”
Students start with parts from a kit and assemble them with their own modifications. Along the way, they learn about circuitry, welding, mechanical engineering and other disciplines that go into constructing a working car from scratch.
“What’s nice about it is the kids take ownership,” said the team’s other sponsor, Mary Montgomery science teacher Tobias Blitzer. “Then when they went in the field, it’s personal pride. They worked on that. They did that. They won that. They also take ownership of all that failed. So what can I do differently to fix that?”
The team competes at Five Flags once a year and at another Electrathon America event at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham every other year. Driver and other team members said the project teaches them teamwork and communication – both of which are necessary to construct the car – and has opened their eyes to transportation options that go beyond fossil fuels.
“They sort of think outside the box,” Morrow said. “To be an engineer, you have to be innovative. It teaches innovation. They all bring perspectives we haven’t thought about.”