On a windy, cold and rainy Saturday morning in late November there are orange cones blocking Dolphin Avenue and east 15th Avenue. In the distance a tiny race car silently drives down the street. A group of children are pushing another race car under the covered entrance of Gulf Shores High School. This isn’t the youngest Indy car race team, it’s Gulf Shores Middle School’s Turbo Dolphins.
Gulf Shores Turbo Dolphin’s are a Greenpower USA team that races battery powered racecars against other teams from all over the country. The Greenpower USA Foundation is in Huntsville, Ala., and is the home base for Greenpower in the United States.
The program originated in the United Kingdom and uses the excitement of motorsport to inspire students from primary school through university to excel in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) studies.
The Turbo Dolphin team is led by Gulf Shores Middle School science teacher Allen Prince and the program is in its second year. During their first season the team had a stock kit car that won the National Championship for the 2018-2019 season. This season the team has added a modified car.
Prince was approached by Gulf Shores Middle School Principal Kyle McCartney to kickstart the program.
“When Mr. McCartney introduced me to the Greenpower USA program I told him I would check it out and get back to him. When I got online and checked everything out, I was like wow. This is high level engineering, high level process thinking skills, and teamwork,” Prince said.
Prince has focused his love of building and engineering into the program and the students. Each team member has a role and learns to work on the car, make decisions on what gear ratios to use, and learn by making mistakes.
The night before each race, the teams participate in a test and tune session. The team has 90 minutes to learn a track they have never seen and collect data with radar guns and heat guns. The data and car performance information are then used to decide if they will make modifications.
“If they feel like their car can run more competitively without running out of power at the end of the 90 minute race, they will switch out their sprockets and change their gear ratios. We have done all the math and have a spreadsheet that shows every gear ratio for every velocity and torque ratio that we’ve got. They all vote they have the freedom to change it. I allow them to make mistakes. They have to make mistakes in order to learn. The only downfall with the program is sometimes those mistakes are expensive. A rim is around $148,” Prince said.
On race day, Prince turns into the biggest cheerleader because the children are in charge. Greenpower USA rules are strict and do not allow coaches into the pit tent when the car is on pit row. The only time coaches can give any assistance is in cases of catastrophic issue or bad accidents. After two minutes, Prince can approach and give verbal directions but can never give physical assistance.
Lucy Karolinski, an eighth grader in her second year on the team is the pit crew chief for the Captain American car (the stock car) and the tool and equipment manager.
“I have learned a lot about teamwork and collaboration and how to work with different tools like rivet guns and drills. I really like being able to go to different school and meet new people on other teams. There are a lot more teams this year so it’s more of a challenge,” she said.
The competition is not based solely on race results. Every race has a different digital presentation package that is submitted whether it’s a Google slide presentation or a film the team makes. Every race has different objectives that must be completed. For example, for the Santa Sprints the team had to decide whether Santa Claus should use an electric motor or gas engine for his sleigh, pick three pros and three cons, and which one he should use with the supporting data.
There is also an interview process. Hannah King, pit crew chief manager for the modified spider man car has participated in the interview.
“We go into a room with four to five judges and they ask us questions about what’s going on with the car, what we expect and ask questions about our presentation,” she said.
Student William Gooden added, “This is my first year on the team and this is really cool. Working on the car, watching the races and learning about electricity is really fun. The fact that I get to travel to different states with my teammates is really fun.”
Student Ian Gotschall said, “The car that is currently out there was the national champion last year. We are looking forward to upholding that title and possibly getting that title for this car which is our modified car. We can change the gear ratio which changes the speed or torque of the car. I love being able to build stuff and race and get involved.”
So far this year the team has raced at the Grissom Grand Prix in Huntsville, Ala. placing third overall in the stock division and tenth place in the modified division. At the Santa Sprints in LaGrange, Ga. the team placed second in the stock division and third in the modified division. Overall the teams stand in fifth place in the overall standings in their divisions.
Prince hopes to encourage other schools in the area to get involved with Greenpower USA.
“I want to get this going in our area. I have spoken with Orange Beach to see if they are interested in starting a Goblin program which is the nine to 11-year-old program. I would like to turn the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area into the new Huntsville. I want it to become the hub for Greenpower for our region,” Prince said.
For more information about the Turbo Dolphin team or to find out about sponsorship opportunities visit the team website https://turbodolphins.weebly.com/. To learn more about Greenpower USA visit https://www.greenpowerusa.net/.