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South Jordan Journal

AAI builds, races two cars in inaugural Daybreak Soap Box Derby

Jun 17, 2021 03:08PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

A self-described “daredevil,” 15-year-old Nellie Brauer was the driver for the American Academy of Innovation’s Titanium Knight car in the inaugural Daybreak Soap Box Derby’s stock division.

“I’m excited; I’m a big adrenaline junkie,” she said on the day she was to test-drive the silver and black car after its inspection. “I like aggressive sports. I have an interest in cars and how they work. It would be cool if this was my first step to racing (NASCAR).”

She and her robotics teammates were putting the final touches on that car as well as a second car they built, called, Separation of Church and State, driven by her classmate, Leo Hazembuller.

Both the cars were donated to the school. Nellie’s was given anonymously from a community sponsor while Leo’s was given by Pastor David Henderson and the non-denomination Neighborhood Church, hence its namesake.

“One of our core values is caring about relationships,” Henderson said about the church that will launch in September 2022. “I look back at my middle and high school days and there were teachers who were most formable in my life.”

Daybreak partnered the two together and Henderson said it works out as a “beautiful accident” as they’re able to be involved with the construction and racing of the car.

“We don’t want people to just come to us. We want to bring light, joy, and hope into the world and hope this soap box car racing down the track does that,” he said. “Sponsoring this car works out perfect. This is our neighborhood.”

He and his wife put on the Neighborhood Church decal while the team Velcroed the cushion around the driver’s pit. The final step was the official soap box derby decal to adhere — or so they thought.

While the assembly of the cars was outside the normalcy of the robotics club, which has built different-sized robots to compete in specified challenges, car construction was not its forte. Still, the team was up for the challenge.

“The first car was donated in March and a student was taking it on to build as a project,” said Danielle Cannon, who advises the robotics team. “When the second car was donated three weeks ago, Mr. Jones (the school’s principal) asked us if we’d like to take both of them on as a project because apparently, the student wasn’t able to complete the project. We jumped in having just finished with our robotics season and haven’t had a day off.”

About five high school and two junior high students regularly contributed, working about 16 hours after school to build the cars.

Ninth-grader Kahner Phan said that the hand tightening of screws was a “long process. We learned that following instructions is very important.”

That’s different than the approach they take with building robots, sophomore Jed Johnson said.

“Building a derby car is different than building a robot; it’s directions versus trial-and-error,” he said.

Junior Mikayli Cannon agreed: “We learned to put the soap box derby car together as a team; it’s interesting after building robots for years.”

The cars have different shapes as the Titanium Knight car was designed for a taller driver. Both cars weigh 73 pounds and allow 270 pounds maximum weight.

“We asked for volunteers to drive and then we decided by who fits in the cars,” their adviser said. “The cars are numbered after our team robotics numbers.”

Before passing inspection, the team learned they needed to redo both cars’ steering systems as they were in backwards, Nellie said.

“It’s something they haven’t done before,” Cannon said. “If we were to do this again, we’d need a longer building process. I’d also advise future people who do this to paint the shells before attaching it to the base. It proved more difficult afterward. We also learned Velcro works better than glue when adhering foam around the driver.”

Even during the double-elimination race, Nellie took tools to tighten her car’s brakes before she put on the red helmet to race the track.

Fans lined the course, which boarded Highland Park on the west, an empty field on the east. Twenty-two stock cars were registered. There also was a freestyle division, which allowed for creativity in the design. The teams were racing for bragging rights as well as some imaginative trophies.

In the first race, both cars lost. Leo driving Separation of Church and State lost to Zac Bradshaw’s car, while Nellie and the Titanium Knight car was inched out by Bella White Mountain America car, one of two cars built by Herriman High students, and one of a handful driven by another female driver. 

“It was neck-and-neck and she barely won,” Nellie said.

She learned from the first race to lean forward and put her head down more to become streamlined and aerodynamic. She also joked that she was eating a French fry to add more weight to her car to help her down the slight incline.

“I’d prefer it to be [steeper] and [scarier],” Nellie added while waiting for her car to be loaded and driven to the top for her next race.

Once in the consolation bracket, race after race, the two AAI drivers won — unlike sponsor Henderson’s experience with a miniaturized pinewood derby race where he said in third grade his best placement was “best paint job” for the sparkly blue coat which his Lego man drove.

Nellie had three more races until she raced Lake Village’s car three times — the first two ending in ties so they had to re-race. With a camera set up at the finish in the third race, she lost, ending Titanium Knight’s run. 

Leo won five more races before falling to the second-place finisher. 

Titanium Knight’s first loss that put them in the consolation round was to the eventual champion, Herriman High junior Isabelle Jeffress.

While Nellie said in the future, she’d like to race in the freestyle division, Cannon said that the students said they were talking about adding a helicopter blade to a car to see if it would fly, or perhaps, add a chain drive and drive it robotically, without a physical driver.

“Those are some of the engineering ideas the kids have,” she said. “They’re creative and think outside the box.”