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Enjoying life in the fast lane

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

They’ve come a long way in a short time.

Last spring, a handful of students at Long Cane Middle School formed the inaugural Cougar Strong Racing team.

The members of the 000 Blue team were responsible for building an electric car, and taking it to different Green Power USA events to compete.

It may have seemed like a daunting effort, but the 15 students came through like champs.

The debut season for Cougar Strong Racing was a successful one that included a pair of second-place overall finishes, and the program continues to grow.

This school year, Cougar Strong Racing has grown to include two 15-person teams, with Long Cane teacher Matthew Graham overseeing the program.

Each day, the members of the two teams meet in a class room at Long Cane to work on the cars, getting them ready for the upcoming race.

Every team member has a vital responsibility, whether it’s driving or maintaining the car, working on the pit crew, documenting everything for social media, or inputting the data from the races to figure out how to make the car more efficient.

Summer Horne, a member of last year’s debut team, said “it’s really exciting” to see the way Cougar Strong Racing has grown.

“I was so excited to be a part of this team,” said Horne, a seventh-grader. “And now it’s our second year, and we’re spreading it everywhere we can.”

The idea for Cougar Strong Racing arose when Graham and Long Cane principal Chip Giles visited a school in Alabama.

“I was on the team that went to Liberty Middle School in Huntsville when we were looking at innovating scheduling models and different programs that we could use,” Graham said. “We weren’t even there to see about this. We were looking at the engineering class, and down the hallway was a car like this. Mr. Giles said hold on, tell me about this. So that’s where this came from.”

Graham was asked if he wanted to take the reins and be in charge of the program, and he jumped at the opportunity.

“(Giles) asked me, what do you think about teaching a Green Power class, and I thought are you kidding me?,” Graham said. “Give it to me.”

An announcement was made encouraging any student interested to fill out an application, and Graham said it wasn’t just for students with mechanical knowledge.

“We had them fill out an application, and most of that was sell me on why you should be in this class,” Graham said. “It wasn’t just for the kids that have experience using tools. I would say probably half the students we have never touched a tool, or worked on a vehicle at all.”

Horne, who is the photographer and webmaster for the original team, remembers how excited she was when she heard about the opportunity.

“It was like a normal school day, and over the intercom they announced that we’re doing this,” Horne said. “We want people who want to be a part of this team to go to the lunch room. So I’m like, let’s do this. I heard everybody talking about it, and explaining how we’re going to do it, and what we’re going to do. I was so happy and surprised that he picked me. It was so cool.”

Horne added that “my dad, he’s a huge fan of NASCAR. I called him one day and told him I was a part of the team, and he was freaking out.”

On race days, it’s not just about putting the car on the track and trying to finish with the best time.

“What’s neat about this program, it’s not just build a race car and go race,” Graham said. “That’s cool, but there’s so much more that you can tie in. When you go to a race, you can win a race, but that’s only 50 percent of the total points. The other 50 percent is presentation, where the team has to give a business plan, a marketing plan, what design choices did you make on the car, and why did you make those choices. They have to introduce themselves and explain their jobs. So, the public speaking aspect of it is big.”

That’s something some of the students weren’t entirely comfortable with at the start, but Graham has seen them grow and embrace that part of it.

“What we’re seeing is even students who are a little shy, last year, by the time we got to the end of the year and had done this several times, they’d developed a confidence about them,” Graham said.

Graham said the project gives the students a chance to put concepts they’ve learned about in other classes to work.

“It’s not abstract,” he said. “It’s real application for some of the math that they’re learning, and some of the engineering concepts.”

Horne said all of the race members are there for each other.

“We work together,” she said. “We’re not just a team, we’re a family here.”

The debut race for Cougar Strong Racing was in April, and the team soared to a second-place overall finish at the Chambers County Grand Prix.

In May at the Chambers County Grand Prix, Cougar Strong Racing took the top spot in the race, and it placed second overall once again.

Horne said she and her teammates couldn’t wait to return to school and begin preparing for the 2018-2019 season.

“It was so exciting to come back and do this again, and see where we’ve come from,” Horne said. “These races, we’re coming for first. We know what we’re doing.”

Once the car was built last spring, the next step was to find someone to drive it.

“What we do to pick our drivers is we have a big driver competition at the start of the year,” said Walker Graham, the tem manager. “We see who can get the best time.”

The drivers are Chloe Morris, Kaleb White and Kevin Webb.

At the Chambers County race, the Long Cane team was in 10th place when Morris climbed behind the wheel, and less than 20 minutes later she was in first place.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Morris said. “I started driving, and I got us in first place.”

Graham said the team is constantly learning and striving to improve the car.

Part of that comes from making sure the car is as light as possible.

The cars have to weigh at least 120 pounds, so the teams want to get as close to that total as possible.

“We weighed our car last year, and it was 147 pounds,” Graham said. “We learned that the team that won first place was 120 pounds. So we said we’ve got to make the car lighter. So we came back, and we tried to systematically drill some holes in the frame where it wouldn’t cause a structural problem. We were really excited, and we weighed the car and we took three pounds out. They were so disappointed.”

Disappointed maybe, but not discouraged.

“We came back this year, and the goal was to get the car to 120 pounds,” Graham said. “We didn’t know until about an hour ago what the car weighed. They decided to remove the seat that came with the car and re-engineer that. We weighed it this morning, and it was 120 pounds.”

Graham said there has also been an emphasis on the presentation portion of the process, and that effort paid off as well at the first race this season, the Chambers County Grand Prix.

“Last year, at the last race, they won the endurance race, but they placed sixth in presentation,” Graham said. “That was only good enough for second overall. So at our first race this year, they got a perfect 100 out of 100 in presentation.”

Unfortunately the team had a flat tire that cost it several positions, but it still placed fifth overall thanks to its strong presentation.

While the flat tire was a bad break, Horne said everyone handled it well.

“At our last race, one of our drivers ran over something, and he popped a tire,” Horne said. “He came in the pit, and this has never happened, but this year it was really fast. They knew what to do. They had it. Now we’ve got experience. They knew what they had to do. They were really fast, and we were out there on the track.”

The new team is off and running well.

The 999 team as it is called also competed at the Chambers County race in October, and it placed third overall.

“The entire team is new. They’re learning,” Graham said. “We do share information between teams.”

Graham is an enthusiastic supporter of Green Power racing, and he was happy to help out when another local school wanted to create a team.

“Gardner Newman is trying to get rolling, and they raced at a Chambers County race,” Graham said. “The coach said I’m not sure if we’re ready, so I said let me come over and look at the car, and based on what I learned from last year, we made a list of things they needed to work on with their team, and they made those and went to the race, and although they were the only team in their category, they got first place.”

Gardner Newman and Callaway Middle School have both created teams this fall.

In a way, Graham is paying it forward after a team in Huntsville helped the Long Cane team get up and running.

“The three-time national champions out of Huntsville, the high-school team, they called me and said y’all should come up,” Graham said. “They knew we weren’t ready to race, so they said come up to this race and come by our shop, and let us show you what we do, and how we do it, and just show you the ropes. I took two students, and we got to visit their shop, take pictures with them. They really reached out and answered tons of questions.”

Graham is happy to share his enthusiasm for the program whenever he can.

Most recently, Graham and his students made a presentation at the Diverse Power annual meeting.

Graham and Giles also spoke at the Georgia STEM conference in Athens in October.

“We just told our story,” Graham said. “This is what we did, this is the success that we had. We had probably 50 people in our sessions asking questions.”

The next big step for Cougar Strong Racing will be to actually host a race.

On Feb. 23, the Diverse Power Grand Prix will be held in LaGrange near Callaway Stadium.

“I’m really excited that we’re actually hosting a race,” Horne said. “We go to these races, and we never thought about hosting a race, and now we are.”

TEAM MEMBERS

TEAM 000

Chloe Morris, Elijah Ward, Averett Ellison, Ryan Webb, Karter Norris, Bo Dyes, Kyshaad Patterson, Ontaria Scott, Summer Horne, Kaleb White, Kevin Webb, Walker Graham and Trayton Guy

TEAM 999

Cam Freeman, Jhon Randy Akins, Kahliya McFarland, Kinsley Locascio, Deo’Vion Tucker, Payde Akins, Landen Gogel, Jay Bradfield, Levi Pike, Eli McClung, Charles Davis, Jr. and Colby Hackley

TEAM LEADER

Matthew Graham

OF NOTE: For more information on the team, go to www.cougarstrongracing.com