History was made last month when the United States hosted its first Formula E event, the all-electric racing series that could have vast technological benefits for consumer EVs. But two hours before the winner let the champagne fly in the victory lane, a very different group of drivers celebrated on the same podium in front of American Airlines Arena.
It was the “School Series,” a competition where students build electric kit cars and get to race them against each other. The series is run in UK by the Greenpower Education Trust, where they have over 8,000 students from 500 schools building and racing these tiny electric cars every year.
"Formula E approached us about the School Series, it seemed like a natural progression for us to grow the profile of Greenpower," says Jeremy Way, the company’s CEO. Greenpower signed a five-race deal with Formula E to function as its supporting series, bringing its tech-club-meets-EV-racing to new places like Buenos Aires, Berlin, and the US. And while it's not going to feed promising young drivers into Formula E, it's a great way to help kids care more about electric vehicles.
Like most student engineering competitions, it exists to encourage and promote STEM education. In fact, the series was started after a 1998 study found a decline in the number of young people in the UK entering the engineering workforce. The drivers and their crews are all in their teens, and come from high schools and charter schools local to each race — these aren’t Andrettis and Earnhardts. In Miami, almost all of them were in some sort of technology or robotics club, but many of them had never raced anything at all — at least not in the real world.
"I’m the best person ever to play Mario Kart."
"I’m the best person ever to play Mario Kart, I can’t be defeated." said Daniella Kennedy, a 17-year-old student on the robotics team at Inlet Grove High School in Riviera Beach, Florida. She’s beaten her friends time and time again on Rainbow Road, but she had never competed against anyone on pavement or asphalt. She didn’t even have a driver’s permit.
That was the consensus of the boys and girls who raced in Miami, who, despite their inexperience, were somehow totally unfazed about driving on the same course as the racing veterans of Formula E.
The 10 teams received kits about five weeks before the event and were given one set of instructions: use all the parts provided with no modifications. That included an electric motor; a handful of small, 50-pound batteries; a thin, metal body frame; and some rubber wheels. Fully completed, the cars look more like they belong in some sort of futuristic soap box derby thanks to their large, solid rims and sleek chassis.
While we often hear in the US that our students are falling behind in fields like science, technology, and math, Way says he was surprised at how quickly the kids in Miami took to the cars. "The [US] students seem very technically capable compared to UK students of the same age," he says. "They are much more technically aware, which is really nice to see."
It was up to the teams to find a place to practice, too. The Inlet Grove team used their school’s bus depot (Kennedy apparently almost drove under one while practicing: "It was a close call," she says). Another team told stories about weaving in between joggers on their school’s rubber running track.
The cars top out at about 30mph under their own power (though one student in Miami claimed he broke 40 on the hill next to the American Airlines Arena), and it took them almost four minutes to complete the circuit. (The 270-horsepower Formula E cars made that same circuit in closer to a minute.) The racing was still exciting, though — a few students battled hard the entire 20-minute race, and the crowd thanked them with a roar every time they passed the grandstands.
While the students were discouraged from getting too aggressive, two drivers came together late in the race. One was squeezed hard enough into the wall that his car lost a wheel; the unlucky student pulled the limping car off the course, unable to finish the race. He was quick to show his frustration with a muffled shout from beneath his helmet: "He’s not supposed to do that!" The closest track worker took the chance to teach him a lesson that’s older than the NASCAR drivers who constantly preach it: "Rubbin’ is racin’."
- Each team is given five weeks to build their cars. Though they have different paint jobs, each car is almost identically set up. When completed, they look like futuristic soap box derby cars.
- The top three teams in the School Series race got to celebrate on the same podium as the Formula E drivers.
- This race wasn't just for fun — the winning team was awarded $5,000 for their school's tech club. Second place took home $2,500, and third place received $1,500.
- Each driver was instructed to keep a safe distance from the others, an order that many discarded after the first lap.
- The School Series race in Miami was held on the same 1.3-mile course that the Formula E cars used. The teams had to find their own places to practice with the kit cars; one used their school's bus garage, another used a running track.
- A driver attacks the straightaway constructed on Miami's Biscayne Boulevard. The cars reached top speeds of over 30mph.
- Drivers race through the 90-degree turns underneath the 395 overpass.
- On some of the sloped sections in Miami, the cars hit speeds of over 40mph.
- A student takes a final look at the course map before strapping in for the race.
- The School Series "paddock" was nothing more than a tent, but by the end of the day it was full of fans of all ages looking for a photo with the drivers — and the cars.
- One of the teams takes a break from the heat. Construction of the track was still being finished on race day, so the School Series teams had a lot of waiting around to do.
- Teams were making last minute adjustments right up until the moment they had to line the cars up on the tracks.
- The drivers were equipped with an essential tool for first-timers on the track: mirrors.
- The tires used in the school series, like the ones used by Formula E, were supplied by Michelin. The cars had to be set up according to certain specifications, but the teams were allowed to use different tire pressures.
- Students had to wear safety helmets, fire suits, and strap into five-point safety harnesses just like the pilots of Formula E.
- A reporter from WLPG 10 in Miami interviews one of the competitors. The School Series paddock drew more and more attention throughout the day, especially since fans didn't have access to where the Formula E cars were parked.
- The eight-student team from Englewood wasn't originally supposed to be in the race. One of the schools dropped out less than four weeks before the race, so the technology student association at Englewood High School got the call instead. When they opened up the boxes, everything was in disarray — the steering rod was bent and parts were missing. The students laughed it off. "It builds character," one said.
- A track official familiarizes students with the rules at a track safety meeting before qualifying.
- Not everyone completed the race. This unlucky driver got squeezed into the wall early on and had to coast to a stop.
- Family members and fans watch the School Series race on a giant screen hung from the facade of the American Airlines Arena.
- One of the competitors watches a Formula E car zip by on the track.
- The series' directors even have access to the live timing technology that was set up around the track.
- There are no pedals in the School Series kit cars — just a throttle button and a handbrake.
- Members of the team from Englewood High School in Englewood, Florida, scrawled a simple reminder on the dashboard: "Don't use brakes."