A team of eighth graders from the Joan MacQueen Middle School in Alpine, CA — about 30 miles east of San Diego — are getting ready to defend the school’s Junior Solar Sprint National Championship at the finals in Atlanta on June 24-25. Teams from all over the United States race model cars that are powered by solar panels mounted on the roofs. GreenSportsBlog talked to Chris Loarie, a parent volunteer leading the Chicken Pot PieRats squad, and Chase Kingston, one of the Pie Rats’ key cogs, to gain a better understanding of what Solar Sprint racing is all about.
GreenSportsBlog: Chris and Chase, thank you for taking time out from your preparations for the Junior Solar Sprint National Championships to talk to us. Chris, how long has this been a “thing”?
Chris Loarie: Well, it’s run by an organization called the Technology Student Association, and it’s been around for about 20 years.
GSB: I had no idea!
Chris: Most people don’t…
GSB: When did Joan MacQueen Middle School get involved?
Chris: The school got started with it about eight years ago — a science teacher offered an elective to interested students back then. We think it’s a great way for students to combine science, technology, engineering and renewable energy, testing creativity along the way. And about three years ago, it became a part of the curriculum in a newly created engineering elective…
GSB: …Middle schools have engineering courses? I guess that question shows it’s been a very long time since I was in middle school! And you can take a class in building and racing solar-powered model cars?
Chris: Thirty-one students are taking the JMMS Engineering course this year.
GSB: I would imagine it’s popular — It sounds like a lot of fun and you Joan Macqueen won the nationals last year in Orlando! And, it must be said, your son Hayden and Ramses Lara took home the gold so congratulations are in order.
Chris: Thank you!
Hayden Loarie (l) and Ramses Lara, after winning the 2017 Junior Solar National Sprint Championship in Orlando (Photo credit: Sullivan Solar Power)
GSB: What is your role?
Chris: I’m a parent volunteer with 35 years of experience in manufacturing. I want the kids in our community to see the types of tools and software that is used in industry and how math is used to solve real problems in design.
GSB: The kids are lucky to have you! And soon you will be on your way to Atlanta to try to do what many say is the toughest thing in sports: Repeat as champions. Are you ready? How did Joan Macqueen MS qualify for the nationals?
Chris: We took part in a regional qualifying tournament, sponsored by Sullivan Solar Power…
GSB: …The company that installed the largest solar array in Major League Baseball on the roof at Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres?
Members of the Joan MacQueen Middle School teams at the 2018 Junior Solar Sprint San Diego-area regional championship (Photo credit: Sullivan Solar Power)
Chris: The very same. Our three-person teams came in first, second and third and the winning team, the Chicken Pot PieRats, get to go to Atlanta to defend our title.
GSB: Chicken Pot PieRats? Where does that name come from?
Chris: We asked the teams to come up with a theme for their car and a team name that was representative of the theme. Being 8th graders, they came up with a play on words and decided on a pirates theme of sewer rats. I think it really helped them make their car color decisions and made the making of the car display a really fun process. Their display is worth almost 1/3 of points in the competition, so having fun with it leads to better quality work. Everyone laughs when they hear the name, so we know it was a great choice.
GSB: Love it! How long are the races and how many cars are in each heat?
Chris: The national event will start with a day of time qualifications. All the cars are run on a single track with a digital timer. The top 16 times advance to the finals the following day. The finals are two lane, head to head racing in a double elimination tournament. The winner of the races receives the highest point value, but the National Champion is the team that earns the most points in three judged areas: racing, design/documentation, and car display.
GSB: How many teams will try to dethrone the PieRats?
Chris: Last year, at the Nationals in Orlando, there were 90 teams so I believe it will be a similarly sized field in Atlanta.
GSB: That’s a lot of people chasing the PieRats, that’s for sure…And that’s a great point to segue from the chasers to talking to eighth grader Chase Kingston, one of three members of the PieRats team — along with Ronan Eddie and Josh Handley who will try to bring the Junior Solar Sprint national championship trophy back to Joan MacQueen Middle School! Chase, what are the keys to designing, engineering and building a solar powered model car that can compete for — and potentially win — a national championship?
Ronan Eddie (l) and Chase Kingston on the winners’ stand after emerging victorious at the San Diego area regional qualifying tournament for the Junior Solar Sprint National Championships, sponsored by Sullivan Solar. Ronan, Chase and teammate Josh Handley head to the nationals in Atlanta on Friday for the races that take place Sunday and Monday (Photo credit: Sullivan Solar Power)
Chase Kingston: It takes a lot of things but I’d say the main factors are building the lightest car possible, with the best tires and the best gear ratios.
GSB: Of course…lightest, best tires and gear ratios…That’s easy to say but I imagine it’s hard to execute…
Chase: It isn’t easy but, thanks to our engineering teachers, we’ve been able to improve on all three.
Engineering drawings of the Chicken Pot PieRats entry that will race in this weekends Junior Solar Sprint National Championships in Atlanta (Credit: Chicken Pot PieRats)
GSB: What about the solar panels themselves?
Chris Loarie: The solar panels, as well as the motors, are the same for all of the cars.
GSB: Got it — that puts a premium on design and engineering. Chase, how did you get into this?
Chase Kingston: Last semester, I was taking a coding class, didn’t like it much. One of my teachers, Miss Tomkins, suggested I try the Engineering class. So I did and she was right. It’s amazing!
GSB: I wish we had something like this when I was in school. How has this course and experience changed you?
Chase: I’m interested in engineering as a career but, thanks to the class and being part of the PieRats, solar engineering is now something I would like to explore.
GSB: That is great to hear. But before that, it’s time to head to Atlanta to try to bring the national championship back to Joan Macqueen Middle School. Good luck!
GreenSportsBlog will check in with Chris and Chase after the Junior Solar Sprint Nationals to see how they made out.