Florida Students Race To Finish Line At F1 World Championship

The churning rotary cutters of a three-axis milling machine lend their mechanical hum to the bustling commotion in an east Bradenton workshop, where a small team of the nation's most talented young design and manufacturing engineers, aerodynamics experts, tech-savvy marketing gurus and graphic designers toil over a series of car designs and business strategies.

Aly Cote monitors the progress of the milling cutters, which she previously programmed to carve out the body of a miniature Formula 1 race car. Cote is just shy of her 16th birthday.

Like the complex parts of the milling machine producing dozens of design prototypes, each member of the Allegiance Racing Team plays an invaluable role in the design, manufacture and sponsorship of a car that will represent the United States this November in the F1 in Schools world championship, a competition that pits the brightest young minds in mechanical engineering against their peers from across the globe.

F1 in Schools is an international program that promotes the "STEM'' disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics among middle and high school students (ages 9-19) through a highly competitive racing challenge. Forty countries worldwide participate in the competition, which requires teams of 3-6 students to design and manufacture miniature Formula 1-inspired race cars out of blocks of balsa wood, using computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technology. These intricately designed CO2 cartridge-powered cars reach 60 mile-per-hour speeds in less than 1.5 seconds flat -- and each fits easily inside a shoe box.

Allegiance Racing Team, comprised of five students from Manatee County public schools, captured the national championship title in May, qualifying to represent the United States at the 9th annual F1 in Schools World Championship Competition in Austin, Texas, November 9-15. This will be the first F1 in Schools World Championship to take place in the United States, and it coincides with the 2013 Formula 1 Grand Prix, which will be held near Austin at the recently completed Circuit of the Americas, the first circuit in the United States purpose-built for Formula 1 Racing.

Allegiance team manager, Cote, a sophomore at Lakewood Ranch High School, is in charge of writing the "G-Code paths'' that coordinate the drill bits on the computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine that manufactures the car parts. A two-year veteran of the F1 in Schools program, Cote possesses certified industry competency in professional engineering software, such as the computer-aided manufacturing program, SolidWorks, which she uses for the F1 design.

"Everything that we're doing now will be beneficial to future mechanical or architectural engineers because the programs we're using here are the same ones engineers are using out in the 'real world','' Cote says.

"It's something I think you have to learn from the get-go, in middle or high school. If you go into it in college without knowing Solidworks or Autodesk, you're at a disadvantage. What we're learning here is going to be really beneficial in college and in our careers. ... Besides a miniature F1 car, this machine can mill anything if you know how to code it,'' she adds.

It Takes A Team

Cote's teammates, Merritt Kendzior, Joey Komor, Sean Martin and Sheel Patel, attend east Manatee County's Southeast High School. The diverse skill-set that comprises the backbone of the Allegiance Racing Team includes not only a strong foundation in the STEM disciplines, but also the web-savvy business and marketing background that F1 in Schools teams must possess to succeed on the international level.

Kendzior, a freshman, is the team's youngest member. She performs a dual role, managing the business aspect of the team in her position as resource manager, as well as lending her unique engineering talents to the design and manufacture of the car. When Kendzior is not busy building and managing professional relationships with team sponsors, she is also responsible for the cars' wheels and bearings, and uses her own specialized assembly technique, which the team says played a crucial role in victory at this year's national competition.

Graphic designer, Komor, brings a Da Vinci-like quality to the team with his diverse skills and lengthy resume. The dual-enrollment advanced placement student will graduate from high school a year early with more than 20 industry certifications under his belt, including the entire Adobe software suite for graphic design and video production, as well as several engineering software programs. Komor designs all of the Allegiance Racing Team graphics, including the car graphics, brochures, board displays, sponsorship items and gifts, and the 20-page project summary portfolio that each team must submit for the international competition, detailing the design and manufacturing process and the team's business plan.

Martin, a design engineer, is the self-described ''guy behind the aerodynamic concepts.'' The high school junior, who is in the International Baccalaureate program, says he strives to stay ahead of an already-challenging academic curriculum so that he can design better cars.

"To succeed in this competition, I have to push it to the level you see in the industry. I have to get ahead of the I.B. curriculum to learn equations, laws, concepts of aerodynamics -- and apply all of it to the team. I recently did a long study on the ins-and-outs of computational fluid dynamics, and I'm trying go get into differential equations now. My goal is to get to the point that I can analyze these cars to the absolute best of my ability,'' Martin says.

Patel, a sophomore, looks forward to a future career in the automotive design industry. The teenage design and manufacturing engineer does some of the most "hands-on'' work on the Allegiance team by manually building, sanding, sealing and priming the cars. He ensures that the design specifications fit the competition's strict guidelines and tests the models for their aerodynamic quality and durability against the stress of running and stopping on the 20-meter competition track. In addition to hands-on analyses, the team utilizes F1 Virtual Wind Tunnel (VWT) software, a program created specifically for F1 in Schools, to virtually analyze the CAD designs.

In the final weeks leading up to the competition, the team has narrowed approximately 30 design prototypes down to the top three contenders.

"We have three final cars we bring with us, and we have to bring several identical duplicates to show that we've mastered the actual manufacture of the cars,'' Martin explains.

"The biggest challenge is that you have to master so many areas of the design process, from start to finish -- the initial design to the testing phase, and then the manufacturing process. Success in this competition comes down to how well you understand the entire design process and how well you apply it.''

Making Connections Key To Success

Margi Nanney, an F1 in Schools Team Adviser since she helped initiate the program locally in 2006, oversees the students. The 2013 international competition taking place in November will be the fourth F1 in Schools World Championship to which Nanney has brought a Manatee County-based team.

Nanney's connection to the F1 in Schools program is a personal one. In 2010, Nanney advised the World Championship-winning United States team, Unitus Racing, of which her son, Mark, was a member. Nanney says that her son's participation in F1 in Schools was instrumental in his achieving a coveted internship in the aerodynamics division at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, England, as well as promising career prospects in the engineering field upon completion of his engineering degree from Florida Institute of Technology.

"The idea is to get students internships inside Formula 1 teams and eventually work in the industry, and to help them get scholarships the best engineering and tech programs in the world. When I see how hard these kids work and what it can do for them -- what it did for my son -- I think to myself, 'I couldn't not do this','' Nanney says. 

Each member of Allegiance Racing looks beyond the F1 in Schools World Championship finish line, and toward ambitious higher education and career goals, all of which fall under the STEM umbrella. The students list marine, mechanical and architectural engineering, automotive design and aircraft design as possible career paths, and are confident that the experience they earn and connections they make through F1 in Schools will be instrumental in achieving those goals.

"Winning gets you a full ride scholarship to college, and while you're preparing for the competition, you're learning skills that can, and will, be used in the real world, like mechanics and graphic design,'' says Kendzior.

"It is basically a 24/7 competition. From the day you sign on, you live, eat, sleep and breathe F1. It pays off, though, when you're going to an international competition where you'll be speaking with some of the smartest kids in the world, as well as the managers of Formula 1 teams. It's exciting just thinking about the opportunities.''

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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