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Meet the Golden Girls of TSA’s Dragster Design Competition

Forget seniors with white hair – the new golden girls are a duo who took first place in the middle school and high school divisions of the Technology Student Association’s Dragster Design contest held at the 2016 TSA National Conference.

In this competition, students design and build a CO2 dragster to race, but points are also earned with a technical drawing and, for finalists, an interview with judges. There are often close race times – this year’s high school winner edged out the competition by 0.002 seconds – so those who take time with the drawing and prepare for interviews are smart competitors.

First, we’ll revisit a three-time high school champion from Florida and then meet a first-time middle school winner from Georgia.

Merritt Kendzior – High School Winner

Resistance is futile – at least when facing the CO2 dragster Resistance built by Merritt Kendzior, a junior from Florida’s Southeast High School. The sleek, gray dragster beat the competition in a close race – in the finals, a second run was needed because there was less than 1/10 of a second between her and a competitor. Ultimately, her time of .811 seconds gave her the win.

We met Merritt in 2014 and 2015 when she won the national Dragster Design title before so we’ve seen how she learns from her competitors, grew up building things instead of playing with dolls, and that she wants to be an engineer. 

This year, we got a peak at a couple of the Merritt’s superstitions about racing. First, almost no one sees her car before the race – neither her friends nor her TSA advisors. Second, it’s bad luck to talk about winning the race beforehand – never say you’re going to win.

Merritt Kendzior, center, earned the gold in TSA's Dragster Design for 2016.

While the seasoned competitor may have her superstitions, she puts in the hours and effort to build a masterful dragster. This year’s car was not a remake of her last, Third Degree, which was a shorter and rounder style of dragster. This year’s guidelines required a longer car, so she focused more on an aerodynamic shape. But there was another challenge.

“To get it low on weight is a struggle,” she said, “but this was the easiest assembled car.”

Resistance weighed 40.18 grams, just a bit more than the minimum weight of 40 grams. Her dad, Brian Kendzior, says that there are many engineering details on Merritt’s dragster that most people can’t see.

“Everything is custom fit on her cars,” he added.

So why the name Resistance? Merritt said one of the definitions of the word refers to the ability to withstand a force, which she feels represents her journey competing in dragsters.

“I face a lot of criticism for being a girl [in the competition], but I feel like I have proven myself,” she said, adding that Dragster Design is an event where underdogs can prove the crowd wrong. “Whether you’re a girl or guy, if you have a passion for it, go for it.”

In 2017, Merritt plans to compete for her fourth and final year in high school. She won’t jinx herself by suggesting she will win it again, but we foresee that anyone who wants to beat her will have to have superior engineering and building skills.

Megan Kelly – Middle School Winner

Achieving gold doesn’t happen overnight. This year’s middle school Dragster Design winner, Megan Kelly, proves that persistence pays off

This is her third year in the competition – the last two years she went to nationals. But the Monroe County Middle School eighth grader had been building experience before that through Pinewood Derby at church. During her first two years in TSA, her cars grew progressively better.

For this year, she again came to nationals and based her dragster, GA Bullet, on last year’s car but with some improvements, including:

  • Fixing the nose of the car because last year’s car shook
  • Curving the back slightly for aerodynamics
  • Cutting down the tires
  • Getting the dragster down to the middle school division’s minimum weight – 55 grams exactly

Her father rough cut the car, but the rest was done by her – all by hand without CNC milling. It took more than two months to sand and perfect the car.

Coming to nationals this year, she hoped for a second or third place finish but was happy to take first with a time of 0.962 seconds. Expect to see her grow some more because Megan intends to keep competing when she enters high school. She knows that she will have to earn her way to the top again, given how competitive her home state of Georgia is in the event.

By PJ Graham, web content specialist