Students at LaFontaine Preparatory School in Richmond are exploring the world of soap box derby car racing.

Gus LaFontaine, founder of LaFontaine Preparatory School, said that soap box derby racing has become an interesting aspect of their engineering curriculum.

"This is brand new for us," he said. "We've never raced soapbox cars, so we're learning as we go."

Students from third, fourth and fifth grades have participated in building the cars this fall, and on Oct. 26, they traveled to Bowling Green for a regional race.

Other racing events on their schedule include Madisonville in March and Owensboro in May of 2020.

"We will also be traveling outside our region to Charleston, W.Va., for a rally race on April 25-26, 2020," said Larry Foley, an engineering and social studies teacher at the school.

"Based on performance in those regional competitions," LaFontaine added, "if you win age groups, you can move on to the world championships in Akron."

He hopes that the students will qualify during regional competitions for the world championships that take place during the summer of 2020.

"This is the first competition we've participated in," LaFontaine said. He added there were about 60 cars racing at the recent Bowling Green competition, and theirs was the only elementary school group there.

"People bring their trailers out and set up like it's a tailgating party," he said. "They gather and congregate like a small community. We really weren't prepared for how big of an event it would be."

Foley added, "Our students compete as individual drivers during race weekends, but students not driving the cars on a particular weekend work as crew members and media specialists."

Many benefits to students are possible through the program, said Foley.

"The Soap Box Derby STEM Based Education Program Curriculum contains activities that engage learners with: project-based lessons, team building, inquiry-based learning, creative problem-solving and fun," he said.

Foley said that he asked each of the 31 students involved what they've learned from the program.

"The top five responses were teamwork/how to build a soap box derby car, weight distribution, gravity racing, aerodynamics (we also built a small wind tunnel last year) and attention to detail," he said.

The attention to detail showed up in the results. Foley said.

"We won and lost races by .021 and .053," he said. "When building and racing the cars, the children learned that 'close enough' doesn't work well. Students realize that they are competing against much older and more experienced kids so they must do the little things correctly."

Foley praised his students as none of the students had ever raced a Soap Box Derby Car or attended an event.

"In our first race, our students competed against World Champions, National Champions and Regional Champions. We did not win a single race during the double-elimination round, but the students applied what they learned, made changes and adjustments, and they bounced back and won four races during single-elimination competition," he said.

Foley said the first race weekend was a success. He said Renzo Watts won three of four races and finished fifth of 16 cars in single-elimination Super Stock competition.

"Students will continue to study gravity, weight distribution, friction, and aerodynamics periodically over the winter months as they prepare to enter competition in the spring of 2020," Foley said.

LaFontaine and Foley both expressed gratitude for all of the support the community has given the project. They noted raising $4,000 from community sponsors which enabled them to fund four cars and all that goes along with them.

"Soapbox racing has become a really exciting and engaging activity for students," LaFontaine said. "We try really hard as a school to think outside the box and engage in ways that are unfamiliar to them. We've got kids that are strong leaders or strong in math, but some kids aren't as strong in those areas.

"When we pull in activities like soapbox cars, those kids are able to shine in those areas. It gives them another chance to succeed."

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