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Cougar Strong Racing second to none

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

Nobody did it better.

Cougar Strong Racing, representing Long Cane Middle School, fielded two teams this season, and they participated in competitions across the Southeast from October to May.

When the final laps had been run at the Greenspaces F24 race in Chattanooga, Tenn., an exceptional 2018-2019 season came to a close for the two teams.

How successful the Long Cane teams were was crystal clear when the final standings were revealed for Greenpower USA’s middle-school division.

Cougar Strong Racing not only walked away with the first-place finish, but the second-place spot as well.

Taking top honors was the #999 team, which was in its first year of competition.

Close behind in second was the #000 team, which began racing during the 2017-2018 school year.

“Really what that was is a competition between the teams who committed to go to every race,” said Matthew Graham, who oversees the racing programs at Long Cane. “It’s a lot of veteran programs that were really good. I’m so proud of both of them, both teams.”

The teams build their own electric-powered cars from a kit the schools receive, and they put them to the test during races that are held throughout the school year.

The students are not only responsible for putting the cars together, but they maintain them, drive them, and take care of any problems that may arise during a race.

On race day, the team that accumulates the most laps during the allotted time is the winner.

Teams also give a presentation to a group of judges, and they receive points for that as well.

Both Long Cane teams excelled on the track, and during the presentations, which is why every other team in the country was looking up to them in the standings.

The #999 team had a total of 1,331 points out of a possible 1,540 points in the seven races combined.

The #000 team was close behind with 1,258 points.

“They owe a lot of that to what the 000 team learned last year. So that kind of put them in a position to really do well,” Graham said, referring to the victorious #999 team. “Even given that, they still had to do a lot to pull it off. They did well.

“We never dreamed that we would have pulled this off in the first year. It’s really special to be a part of.”

The #000 got things rolling in the spring of 2018, and the team enjoyed success right away, bringing home a pair of second-place finishes.

When the 2018-2019 school year began Cougar Strong Racing had grown to two teams, and they were unstoppable.

They were either winning or coming awfully close at every race they went to, and that included the Diverse Power Grand Prix in LaGrange.

The Long Cane teams swept the top two spots, with the #999 team finishing first.

For Graham, seeing some of the students come out of their shell and flourish has been an enjoyable aspect of the program.

“That’s been a fun thing to be a part of is to see their growth,” Graham said. “Some are super-shy. After they’ve done it five or six times, you start to see some confidence about them. They’ll take that forever.”

At the final race of the season in Chattanooga, sixth-grader Payde Akins was responsible for part of the presentation, and Graham was impressive with her knowledge, and her poise.

“She’s explaining with confidence how the inside of an electric motor works,” Graham said. “She’s explaining it in a way with how in the world did she learn that and memorize that, and present it with confidence to these judges. It was the coolest thing.”

Another educational aspect of the program is the way it forces the students to deal with the inevitable adversity that arises during the races.

The teams that overcome obstacles on race days thrive, while the ones that don’t handle problems as well are back in the pack.

At the Chattanooga race, the #000 team had to overcome some major adversity to hang onto its second spot in the national rankings.

“The third and fourth-place teams were sitting within striking distance,” Graham said. “It’s pouring-down rain, so we’re trying to get ready to go out there, and we had like 45 minutes until the race was scheduled to start. And they’re doing some testing, and a fuse blows, the main power fuse on the motor.

“They were like why did this happen? It’s never happened before. They swapped in a new fuse, and then they discovered that there were sparks coming out of the seam of the motor casing, which had never happened before.”

Rather than risk the motor giving out during the race, they opted to install a new one, which is a complicated process.

“They said, let’s see if the Greenpower folks have some spare parts and we can get another motor. I said let’s do that,” Graham said. “They go and check and yep we’ve got a motor. We can get it. Then it’s do we have time to swap it out? By the time they figured this out, they had about 30 minutes before the race started.”

Rather than panic and worry about how little time there was, the team members got to work.

“They had to re-gear the car, get a new chain on it, and mount it up, and re-wire it up,” Graham said. “That’s like an hour-long process minimum. They did it in 25 minutes. They were wide-open scramble mode. There were about four of them with their hands on it the whole time, and they were able to get it done.”

For team #000, the problems were just getting started.

The race started 15 minutes early because of concerns that the weather, which was already rainy, would get worse as the day went along.

“They jump out there eight minutes late, and they’re doing well,” Graham said. “The chain comes off, so we come in and get the chain back on. We’re back out there racing again, and it’s pouring down rain, and halfway through the race the nose cone falls off. That had never happened before. They found some strong duct tape. They brought it in, and they tape the nose cone back.”

Through it all, team #000 still earned a respectable finish, making sure it would hang onto the number two national ranking.

After the race, team #000 was fittingly presented with the perseverance award.

“All that adversity, and they still finished fifth overall for the event,” Graham said. “It would have been so easy to give up. Had they done that, they would have lost that second-place national spot. It was the greatest life lesson ever, that even when everything is stacked against you, you don’t give up, you put your minds together and do some problem-solving and come up with a solution, and don’t quit.”

Graham is already looking ahead to the 2019-2010 season.

Both teams will have some holes to fill with some of the students graduating from middle school to high school.

With that in mind, Graham got a head start on the season, asking anyone interested in being a part of a team to submit an application, and the deadline was earlier this week.

For the next step, Graham has decided to involve the current team members.

“We’re going to do something new to narrow it down,” Graham said. “We’re going to invite the kids who make the short list in for an interview with a few of the team members, and let them do a short little presentation of why we should choose them.”

Then when school begins in August, it’ll be time to get back to work for the two teams as they look to build on the phenomenal success they enjoyed last season.

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