Two girls, two cars and 12 kids supported by its school and community was all the equation Meadowview Middle School needed to place in the state Gravity Games in Lenoir.
Sixth grader Abby Padgett finished ninth with fellow driver Ajahlee Pepper coming in 17th.
The local team traveled to Lenoir recently to compete in the fourth annual North Carolina Gravity Games, sponsored by Google and Appalachian State University.
Google Caldwell County Data Center Operations Manager Enoch Moeller said the games began as a competition where Google supplied derby car kits to several schools as a “feeder” project to ultimately inspire future engineers. Typically the competition has one division for cars from kits to race and another division where cars are built to answer an engineering problem.
“They’ve been working on these cars all year long,” said Principal Denny Barr. “They started at 9:30 a.m. that morning and raced all day.” He said 35 teams competed in the event which took place on Main Street in Lenoir. Padgett, a dark-haired sixth grader with all the pluck and intensity of a test pilot, was undaunted, even after the team arrived to see how the cars were started off ramps with different teams making the run side by side in their own lanes.
Previously, the Mustangs had only ridden in their two cars as they were pushed in the parking lot. Padgett (who said she would like to challenge Danica Patrick) was candid about the emotional shape of her fellow driver, Pepper.
“She looked like she was about to pass out and her face was all white,” said Padgett. “There were more boys there than you’d expect. Every one I went up against was a boy.” The girls agreed only 10 girls were participating in the derby.
Pepper said this was the first time she had steered the car downhill. She explained how the car was positioned before the start.
“There was a board that held you up on the ramp at an angle,” said Pepper. “That was all that held you in place. It was scary. It took a lot to get up on there and I was nervous. I saw other people do the hill though, and after that I was OK.” Two minor crashes into traffic cones and straw bales by other teams also set the tone for the group. She said her father, Ricky, pitched in the effort after she told him she was interested in being a driver in the race. Barr praised the support of the elder Pepper, and said he proved invaluable on race day as he helped with repairs and a variety of issues.
“I got up to 21 miles per hour,” said Pepper.”This was the first time I’d done anything like this. It was a small track with another guy right beside you. It was fun but I was a nervous wreck. Everybody wanted ice cream at McDonalds later (to wind down). I thought about how we were the first in Surry County to do this. After my first run I was crying. I don’t know what got to me.”
Padgett said it felt like she was “going 60 miles and hour” and the wind made her eyes water. She said the best part of the competition for her was building the car. She said she would like to be an astronaut some day.
“I enjoyed my run. I wanted to wreck into the hay bales but they wouldn’t let me,” said Padgett. “My car’s pulleys weren’t working well. We found out the screws were too big and we had to get some from another team to make the adjustments.” Both girls said they would love to drive in a derby again and said the support of teammates, such as Karlie Marion, allowed them to make it.
The other members of the Gravity Games team are Keanan Chandler,Maggie Upchurch,Erika Almaraz, Jordan Gomez, Dashaun Bush, Leslie Nguyen, Caden West, Marshall Martin, Chase Cornell and Levi Horton.
“We’re just planting seeds,” said coach Joe Whisnant. “If they get into it great. If not, it’s not all just about science. It’s as much about being a team and getting out in the world and overcoming your fears.”
David Broyles may be reached at 336-719-1952 or on twitter@MtAiryNewsDave.