By David Rogers. April 27, 2019. LENOIR, NC – Drivers and their pit crews came from across the state. Tires burned, brakes heated up as “automobiles” came to a screeching halt. Rubber even flew across the track at one point, but there was nary the revving sound of a racing engine.
COVER IMAGE: “Kit” division entries go at it during the early elimination round. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
You are unlikely to see gravity-powered cars going uphill any time soon, but they were all the rage on Saturday as a field of almost 60 “soap box derby” styled vehicles negotiated their way down Ashe St. in downtown Lenoir as part of the 9th Annual North Carolina Gravity Games.
An idea brought to city officials by the staff at Google’s datacenter, Gravity Games has since evolved as a signature event of the North Carolina Science Festival. The competition promotes students’ learning of science “stuff” – but having fun while doing it. Participation is organized around a singular mission: use science knowledge and engineering skills to build the fastest and “coolest” cars. At least in the Tar Heel State, this is Soap Box Derby on steroids.
This is Soap Box Derby — on steroids!
Across three different categories of competition (Kit, Engineered, and Challenge), an estimated 5,000 participants and onlookers watched as teams from middle school, high school, college, home school, and Boy Scouts executed their game plans and showed their stuff.
Younger and newer teams gravitate (pun intended) toward the Kit division as students gain greater knowledge of physics concepts, such as friction and wind resistance. The soap box derby “kit cars” are standardized, but the student teams can tweak the basic materials, including the external design of the car, maybe add air foils, and fiddle with the weight – although the Gravity Games rules stipulate that the car and driver together cannot weigh more than 300 pounds.
Several of the teams’ adult mentors interviewed by Blowing Rock News also noted that the experience promotes the importance of team members working together toward a common goal. The best science student on the team may not be the best driver. Each team member has a role to execute, from design to construction to piloting the car down the course.
Things really start to get interesting in terms of imagination, creativity and design when the Engineered and Challenge cars take to the three-block course through the very center of downtown Lenoir.
In the Engineered division, the students design and build their own cars and there are a lot of decisions to be made about everything except what will fuel the car. Gravity is the only thing they all have in common. Do they use small diameter tires, or will larger ones provide more speed? From what kind of material do we make the body from? What combination of wood, steel, aluminum or plastic will give us the necessary support for the driver but go faster down the hill? Do we enclose the driver in a cockpit, or leave it open air? Will our car be box, a buggy or a cylinder on wheels? What kind of brakes do we add to the design?
The Challenge division brought even more variables into the design equation. This year, the challenge was to design a car that started on four wheels but crossed the finish line on two wheels.
The weather was “sunscreen recommended.”
The students were asked to consider: Where do you put the wheels? Are they all the same size? What mechanism will you use to raise two of the wheels before you cross the finish line? Will our car be faster if we stay on four wheels for most of the way down the course, or will we pick up speed by switching to a two-tire configuration as soon as possible after we leave the starting gate?
A couple of the Challenge entries learned the hard way that scrimping on the quality of materials can be costly. One tipped over when the “axles” serving the two extra wheels proved too flimsy upon hitting the pavement after coming down the starting ramp. Another simply “stalled” when the driver’s lift mechanism failed.
“While frustrating and maybe even embarrassing,” pointed out one Google staff volunteer near the starting gate, “in science, technology, and engineering, you may well learn your most valuable lessons from your failures because it forces you to rethink your mission and think through the challenges. The result is often the kind of innovation that leads to success.”
City of Lenoir Mayor Joe Gibbons was on hand to greet the participants and the crowd of supporters and spectators.
North Carolina Gravity Games is one of the signature events of the NC Science Festival.
In an interview with Blowing Rock News, Gibbons explained, “This event was Google’s idea when they came to Lenoir eleven years ago. They said, ‘We have an idea to stimulate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. We’d like to do an old-fashioned soap box derby race, but tie it to the teams building their cars and we’ll supply a kit car for them to get started.’
“For the first few years, Google supplied the kit cars,” said Gibbons, “but they always encouraged the teams to build their own cars. That’s what led to the Engineered and Challenge divisions.
“It was their baby,” Gibbons said in breaking into a big smile. “We just said, ‘Hey, we like it and it is a great idea.’ We moved it to this Ashe Ave. course the second year and have been here ever since. It has worked out well.”
Shutting down downtown is “always tough,” noted Gibbons, in closing the streets on Saturday, “…but we let our merchants know in plenty of time so they can prepare and even take advantage of the crowds. If they want to be out on the streets with some items to sell, great. We encourage that. The restaurants are certainly open and we invite all of our visitors and event participants to go in them. We also have some concessions in the Science Street area of what has become a festival that is unique to Lenoir. Basically, we open up downtown for people to see what we have to offer and enjoy.”
We are really proud of this community’s commitment to supporting STEM education.
Talking about the history of the Gravity Games event, Gibbons was all smiles in recalling that in the first year there might have been 15 to 20 cars competing, but this year there were close to 60, even though the event had to be rescheduled from two weeks ago because of inclement, stormy weather.
The local Chamber of Commerce could not have ordered up any better weather on Saturday: bright, sunny and clear skies with the lightest of breezes. Sunscreen recommended.
“This is a great event,” an enthusiastic Hildebran told Blowing Rock News as the first kit cars started down the course. “It gives visitors from all across North Carolina a broader perspective of our city. It is remarkable exposure for our community. From a city management perspective, closing down the streets presents challenges, but everyone downtown seems enthused about the event and has embraced this opportunity for us to showcase Lenoir.”
Blowing Rock News could not help but ask Hildebran to note the similarities and differences between Lenoir and what recalls from his days serving as town manager of Blowing Rock.
“Well, we don’t have the tourism that Blowing Rock has,” said Hildeberan, “so we don’t have the seasonality. We have more of a Monday through Friday business environment, especially with the courthouse right here downtown. So we have a different economic base and environment.
“But we do several major events downtown,” he added, “such as Gravity Games, the Blackberry Festival, and Smoking in the Foothills, which is a large regional BBQ event. There is a Strawberry Festival later today going on across town and we even have a tattoo festival, which is unique to North Carolina and brings in a different, more diverse clientele. Not every event fits well with every downtown business, but hopefully the mix brings business to everyone, eventually.”
Google’s “George” is the site operations director for the Lenoir-based data center and “Eric” has a leadership role with the North Carolina Science Festival.
“We are really proud of this community’s commitment to promoting STEM education,” George told Blowing Rock News as things were winding down in the afternoon. “It is great to see these kids get excited about science and engineering, to see their eyes light up when they discover something new and to see the creativity and imagination they apply, often as a team, when meeting a challenge.”
Eric admitted to Blowing Rock News that the Lenoir-hosted Gravity Games has evolved as one of the signature events of the North Carolina Science Festival.
“With our many partners,” he observed, “we host more than 400 STEM-related events each year. This is one that a lot of people look forward to because it is so well executed and so much fun as a learning experience for the students.”
In his closing remarks after the racing was done, Mayor Gibbons reminded the crowd gathered for the awards ceremony that 2019 was the ninth year of the Gravity Games.
“There will be a tenth,” hizzoner declared. “And we have something special planned to celebrate our tenth anniversary!”
While Google and the North Carolina Science Festival are lead organizers for the North Carolina Gravity Games, other key sponsors include Appalachian State University, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, North Carolina Space Grant, Downtown Lenoir NC, and Queen City Weekend.