Photograph by Grob/National Geographic
Published May 2, 2013
Inside a hangar at Opa-Locka Airport, north of Miami, an automotive team puts the finishing touches on a sleek black-and-white custom race car capable of exceeding 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). This Friday the 525-horsepower speedster will compete against an even more exotic opponent: a Learjet.
But the biggest surprise of all? The car was constructed almost entirely by a team of schoolchildren.
The kid-built car and the car-jet race are both the brainchildren of aviation innovator and educator Barrington Irving, who in 2007, at the age of 23, became the youngest person to make a solo flight around the world. Irving's Experience Aviation organization, a nonprofit he founded in 2005, aims to inspire minority youth and women to learn about aviation careers.
"The goal is to have kids build something amazing with a real finish line at the end," said Irving, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. "Students had to figure out wiring and do every rivet and bolt on the car. We started them off on lawnmower engines. They had to tear them down, put them back together, and make sure they worked. We brought in bicycles to explain transmissions and how they work. A lot goes into this."
To guide his 30 students, Irving recruited six automotive professionals, all with different specialties, including his own father, Barrington Irving, Sr. Beginning in 2012, the team spent weekends working in a 15-foot-by-30-foot (5-meter-by-9-meter) corner of Orion Jet Center's airplane hangar, assembling a Factory Five GTM Supercar.
"It is one of the most difficult kit cars to build," Barrington said of the powerful racer. "The body was a challenge. Fusing the transmission to the engine was a challenge. We had issues with the exhaust." (Read about Irving in National Geographic magazine: "Crusading Pilot.")
"Not too long ago we were working on the brakes," recalled Eric Cumberbatch, 13, who spent nearly a year on the project. "We couldn't figure out how to properly align the fluid line. It took us a long time." Cumberbatch went on to help with the complex tasks of installing the suspension and securing the engine to the frame.
No matter who finishes first in Friday's race, said Irving, the real win is seeing students like Cumberbatch develop skills and find inspiration. According to a recent White House study, students in the United States lag significantly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields when compared with students in other countries. Minorities and women in the U.S. are underrepresented in those fields as well. One culprit cited by the study is a lack of teachers who know how to inspire and interest their students.
"We have more than enough math and science resources out there," Irving said. "That's not the issue this country has. The issue is engagement. We need to light that fire in kids."
Irving hopes that Experience Aviation projects like 2008's Inspiration II, in which students learned to build a flyable aircraft, or the upcoming car-jet race—only students who had attended a STEM academy for at least a year were permitted to work on the car—will attract more minority youth to careers in STEM fields important to future U.S. competitiveness.
At 9:30 a.m. this Friday, Irving will look down Opa-Locka's empty 8,000-foot-long (2,438-meter-long) runway as he settles behind the wheel of the Factory Five GTM Supercar and fires up the engine.
"We're thinking of maybe calling the car Inspiration III, since our first two airplanes were Inspiration I and [Inspiration] II," he said.
Irving's father, Barrington Sr., will ride in the passenger seat, coaching his son. "I'm glad he's able to participate in this," said Irving. "It's a real proud moment for me."
Car and jet will zoom down the runway, covering a mile in seconds. Both will then make a U-turn and race back a half-mile. "It is 525 horsepower versus 7,000 pounds of jet thrust," Irving said.
Irving may reach speeds of 180 miles per hour (290 kilometers per hour). The jet may be faster, but it may also take longer to reverse course to finish the final half-mile. "I think it's going to be a very close race," said Cumberbatch.
"The funny part," added Irving, is that "I first drove a stick shift four weeks ago. And I just learned how to drive this car last week."
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