Students use their brain to build a car

Deep in the belly of Vance High School a secret weapon gurgles, or revs, depending on whom you ask.

Every Thursday after classes, students from Vance's Ten80 Student Racing Challenge team meet in a windowless room on the ground level of the school, surrounded by miniature car parts and computers that line the walls.

Their plan is to use both components to build an RC car capable of taking the championship in this May's Ten80 Student Racing Challenge finals, which will be held at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

And they think they have a good chance of succeeding.

"We are very close to an actual prototype, and it's all in that box," said advisor Matthew Wykoff, who pointed to a tattered cardboard container, its contents kept under wraps. Wykoff remained tight-lipped about the car and would only reveal that its energy will derive from solar power.

Ten80 Education programs encourage students to apply science, technology, engineering and math, often called STEM subjects, to real world situations. The Ten80 Student Racing Challenge is a NASCAR STEM initiative where students model a motorsports team in every aspect, from drivers to researchers to marketing specialists.

The use of STEM subjects when building an RC car serves as another real world reflection true with motorsports professionals.

Today's NASCAR garages house more than just greasy wrenches and screwdrivers. Advanced computer software and a strong grasp of high-level math and science rank just as high as other essential tools in the shop.

"I wish that was better depicted during the race,"said Wykoff.

"When most of the public looks at NASCAR, they just see racing in a circle, but it's so much more interesting when you look at the engineering involved."

Vance's team is putting most of its energy into creating a cutting-edge prototype for this May.

"We do a lot of tinkering. Tinkering for innovation," said Wykoff. "I'm proud of these kids because their focus is research and development. How well they drive these cars is only one small portion of the overall scoring system."

In May, judges will award points based on categories like creative engineering, teamwork and team logo in addition to a series of lap races around a specially-made track in the pits.

Teams can be penalized with added seconds for infractions like needing a battery charge or an extra extension cord from the sanctioning body.

Last year driver Josh McIlwain, 15, hit the wall early, costing a few points. "On the qualification lap, I was kind of nervous," he said."We came in seventh out of 15." He practices now in the school's courtyard or on the narrow road paved between the school's trailers.

STEM subjects have played a big role in their prototype's development. During club meetings, students often can be seen working on everything from complicated algebraic equations to creating 3-D graphics using specialized computer software.

Each aspect prepares the 18 members for their individual jobs.

"Alex's strength has been analysis, 3-D modeling and blueprint development," said Wykoff of 15-year-old freshman Alex Chen's contribution to the team. "He developed the 3-D model of the chassis."

Like many, the experience has made Chen start to consider a career in engineering.

"I've always had a curiosity of how things work," he said.

No matter the outcome in May, Wykoff said the lessons they've learned along the path have taught them about their potential.

"They're all so young and figuring out their roles in all this and what their strengths are," he said. "Everyday they are coming up with innovative ideas. I'm seeing it on a regular basis."