Racing to Learn

“I wish they would have had something like that when I was in school.”

Dave LeBrun, technology educator at Southern Door High School, has heard that comment a lot after he introduced the Formula High School (FHS) program during the 2013-14 school year.

FHS was developed by innovative engineering and technology teacher Jeremie Meyer at Preble High School in Green Bay. The premise is simple: Students build a single-seat race car and then race against other student-built cars at Road America in Elkhart Lake, while spending a weekend at the elegant Osthoff Resort.

LeBrun heard about the program in 2011 and started investigating it, visiting schools where they had bought into FHS and taking away ideas for the day when he could bring the program to Southern Door.

“I saw it and realized everything I do in my shop is covered. It’s encompassing all the things I teach the kids, which is really neat,” LeBrun said. “It was to actually do something really cool with these skills I teach the kids, to make an end result of something. Hey I taught you how to weld. I taught you how to machine. I taught you about transmissions and engines. I taught you electrical. Now I’m going to teach you to race.”

The FHS motto is “Racing to Learn.”

“It was a blast,” said Ian Carpenter, who served as student leader of the school’s FHS team. “I’m really happy that I could do it. In fact, I think I’ve learned the most in that than in any other high school class, because not only did we learn how to build a car, but we learned how to market it and that’s something I found really interesting. There’s a different sort of pressure than, ‘oh, man, I have a trig test next week’…I have $15,000 of somebody else’s money invested in a car. I need to get this to race day and make it perform well. That’s just a totally different kind of pressure that you don’t find in any other class. So I think that’s a great thing that we learned how to do.”

It was that real-life experience that sucked the 18-year-old senior into the project.

“We put a lot of hours into it, a lot of long nights, and I think it really paid off,” he said. “For me, the most challenging part was sitting down and telling myself that I’m going to have to go ask somebody for money and then I’m going to have to put a product together that they’re going to be satisfied with at the end of it. It was an adrenaline rush, really. At least from the business end of it, it taught me how to network with the local community. People are a lot more wiling than I initially expected. A lot of companies are eager to get their name onto a product and get it out there and help out with the local high school. It teaches, at the very least, don’t be afraid to ask.”

Ian, who plans to earn a business degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, get a realty license “and then start my own life,” said the experience really allowed him to grow in the direction he wants his life to go.

Alexis Winchell ready to drive Southern Door’s Formula High School car.

“It’s astounding that you can let a group of kids who decide to get dedicated and build it up. I was just impressed that every school there had a car built by kids,” he said. “They’re a blast to drive. The build quality on all of them was great. I would like to see other schools get involved in it.”

So would LeBrun.

“I’m starting to play a part in expanding it to other schools and shaping it a little bit. I tend to get my fingers in it and can’t keep my mouth shut,” he said.

LeBrun said while about 20 students were involved in the project in some way this year, it was a core group of eight students and one former student who really made things happen.

“We have one former student, a graduate of last year, who helped us with a lot of technical stuff. He was a kingpin in our program last year as well. That was Adam Monfils. He came down with us to Elkhart Lake.”

However, there is a disconnect for some students who only see the end result – driving the finished car – when it’s really about the process of raising the money to build the car, and then building it.

“Driving it is just the cherry on top of the sundae,” LeBrun said. “I want kids who say, hey, I want to challenge myself and make this car better. I want to show my talents building the car.”

The first-year FHS group at Southern Door built a stock model. This year’s group built a modified version.

“The stock car is basically just the engine, no suspension and just the parameters that are given,” LeBrun said.

“This year we had full suspension and also a CVT snowmobile-style clutch transmission, and other doo-dads here and there that you could do with a modified. You can do a lot more with a modified, but it’s much more complicated, much more technical and your chance of good results the first time are much harder, meaning that there’s much more complexity for the car. We did not get the right transmission set up. We had a car that handled absolutely beautifully, but its gearing at top end wasn’t there. It was a cornering car, it wasn’t the speed racer we were hoping for.”

Next year?

Jon LeBrun standing next to Southern Door’s Formula High School car (Jed Ring is in the second car).

“Oh, definitely!” he said. “It’s a work in progress. We did the groundwork on these two cars. And now the direction we travel is to make the cars better, improve upon them. Our first-year stock model is very, very refined. I had lots of hours looking and fielding ideas from every other car that I saw, and I traveled to a number of schools to look at their cars, investigate what they were doing.

“Most of the fabrication is the kids. Critical parts, that’s kind of left up to me. If it can break and hurt somebody, that’s the only thing I do. If it’s got to be really, really precise, I do that otherwise it gets very expensive.”

And expense is a concern. The students have to raise the money to build the car. All concerned seemed surprised by how the community supported the program.

“Our cars are stunning when you compare them to the other cars, and that’s because we have two aces in the hole, and that’s Arvid Anderson of Anderson Auto Body, former art teacher at Southern Door, and Woody’s Signs. They bent over backwards. I can’t say enough about those guys. They make our car look so good,” LeBrun said. “We had some major, major contributors. One was Cochart Tires. They were like, how can we help your program. That was really cool. We didn’t even seek that. Tim Cochart said, ‘Dave, I want to help that program.’ Another one was Exactech and Shuttlelift. They were right in there. TTX always comes through. They’re just heavy, heavy hitting. That’s where I think I know I’m doing something right, when the community steps up to the plate. They want to see us succeed. The businesses can definitely see where their future employees are coming from.”