On Sunday, March 22nd, the Washington DC Region (WDCR) SCCA held their first Test-n-Tune of the year. They also held a program that provided a first experience not only for some 5th graders, but the SCCA as well, thanks to Dan Paris. Dan, a WDCR autocrosser and 5th grade teacher at Ashlawn Elementary in Arlington, VA, had an interesting idea to combine two of his favorite things: teaching and auto-crossing.
Dan started autocrossing in 1996, when he was a Marine stationed in San Diego, CA at the Marine Corp Recruit Depot. He was only able to autocross for one year due to military commitments, but it only took one season to catch the bug that so many of us have. After retiring from the military, Dan bought himself a present in the form of a 2013 Mazda Miata Club Sport and resumed autocrossing with the WDCR SCCA, using car number 5, which he chose specifically because he teaches 5th grade. “I bought a season subscription so I could guarantee my car number!” he said.
While getting back into the swing of autocrossing, Dan had an epiphany. Force and motion was one of the units Virginia 4th and 5th grade students must learn for their end of year standards test (SOLs). Why not demonstrate force and motion through experience-based learning at an autocross?
Dan didn’t just want to take his students on a thrill ride; he wanted to engage their minds and use it as a teaching opportunity as well. Dan’s idea was that each student would get a single ride-along with him in his Miata. Using basic smartphone apps, they would record braking G-forces, total time, and with a pyrometer, record tire temperature.
What seemed like a simple thought had many layers and challenges to overcome in order to bring his idea to fruition. The “field trip” would not be a sanctioned school function. Therefore, Dan would still need approval from Ashlawn Elementary School Principal Judy Apostolico-Buck to make this happen. Dan commented that she said, “I love it! Tell me what you need to do it!”
Dan floated the idea by Brian Garfield, WDCR Novice Coordinator, and Evanthe Salisbury, WDCR Solo Co-Chair, to see if the idea could even be entertained by the club. Brian and Evanthe agreed that fundamentally there was no reason it couldn’t be executed during one of their slower-paced autocross events, such as a novice school. The hurdle was that Dan’s students’ average age was between 10-11 years old, and the SCCA requires that a ride-along must be at least 12 years old. That meant getting approval at the National level.
Evanthe approached Howard Duncan, SCCA Vice President of Rally, Solo, and Special Programs, to see what could be done. “I had a great response from Howard, who seemed very open to the idea,” said Evanthe. Little did she know that Howard was very excited at the opportunity. Howard commented, “Oddly enough, I was this same age (10-11) when I first discovered the sport while riding my bike with friends and taking a shortcut behind a shopping center. I stopped and became immediately engrossed in the cars and activity, finally leaving sooner than I wanted to due to my friends becoming bored. I later re-discovered the sport some 9 years later while in college. I can only imagine how much sooner I would have been involved in SCCA AND how much better a student I would have been if my school had a program like Ashlawn’s to engage my mind.”
Howard championed the cause, and presented the proposal to Steve Hudson, Chair of the Solo Events Board (SEB), and Kathy Barnes, a former science teacher herself and current Chair of the Solo Safety Committee. Kathy’s first response was, “What do we need to do to get this approved?” and, “How can I help?” She said both she and Steve saw no downside to the proposal as long as all the rules were followed, and she knew the DC Region would follow them.
The final step was to receive the National Board’s approval. Once the National Board’s approval was received, the SCCA was fully on board, and Dan next needed to get parental approval for the students. Again, with this not being a school-sponsored event, the parents would need to be responsible for getting their child to and from the event. Dan teaches 63 kids total, and offered the opportunity to all of them. Of those 63, 22 students received permission to attend.
Every student (20 actual students made it out) got at least one ride with Dan. With the assistance of fellow schoolteacher Jen Everdale, all of the data (braking G-forces, total time, and tire temperature) was recorded. He also explained to the students how friction has an effect on the tires, and the heat generated, and what was happening to the air molecules in the tire. Several parents and Ms. Everdale also took Dan up on his offer and went out for rides as well. It was exciting to see all of the students’ smiling faces, not only when they got into Dan’s Miata, but also when they finished their ride-along.
Even with a full-face helmet on, there was no mistaking their excitement. Fifth-grader Jacob Arrowsmith asked, “So, how do I get a job doing this?” This author explained that we were all volunteers, and not paid, but were there because this was what we enjoyed doing. “Yup, I know what I want to do when I grow up!” Jacob’s third-grade brother, Tyler, was also in attendance, and was also given a ride-a-long. Dan explained, “It was probably the most amusing run of the day. Tyler provided a running commentary of the entire run!
The experience went off without any issues. The students were well-behaved, and the WDCR committee members onsite organized the undertaking in conjunction with holding a Test-n-Tune without any interference for its membership.
Many participants were actually excited to see the students out and getting involved with the sport so many of us love. Dan commented, “The next day at school, the students were still on cloud nine!
Dan also shared some pictures that were taken during the event, and had Mark Wiser, a friend who runs a production company, filmed a portion of the ride-alongs. The video is available for viewing here
Maybe in a few years these young adults will be the next generation of future autocrossers and National Champions!