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Florida student makes history with 4th Dragster Design gold

Many great CO2 competitors came from the halls of Southeast High School in Bradenton, Florida: Ahmad Hares, Mark Nanny, and others. When Merritt Kendzior won her second TSA Dragster Design national gold in 2015, the then-sophomore professed that she wanted to be one of those inspiring names remembered in her school.

I daresay she will be remembered by more than just Southeast High School students.

In June, Merritt ran her car in her last high school Dragster Design national competition – and took gold for the fourth time in a row. Event Coordinator Ronnie McQueen, who has been running the event for 30 years, said that he has seen the same school win back to back, but he cannot remember any one competitor winning two in a row – much less four.

Oh, and did we mention that Merritt took national gold one year in middle school too?

This year, she made TSA history with her car, Helluva Ride (based on a fight song from the Georgia Institute of Technology(Georgia Tech), which she will be attending this fall), by beating the second place car by 0.001 of a second. She points to this very close race as one reason why she never rested on her laurels.

“My first year at state ­– and it’s probably one of my favorite cars; it wasn’t the best car ever and it didn’t look the best – but there was paint in my cartridge hole. I got DQed. I got thrown into Dragster randomly – I was told, ‘You’re going to do Dragster.’ So, I did it and was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I got DQed. Whatever,’” she said, adding that she later changed her mind and stuck with it. “Whatever you do, do it to 110 percent. Don’t cut corners. Don’t try to skimp around. It’s better to learn it yourself and go with your own approach than cheating off someone else’s car and that kind of stuff. In the end, it will pay off.

“Continually innovate. You can’t ever sit comfortable. And don’t ever walk into a race cocky, thinking you’re going to win it, because the second you get confident is the second you’re going down.”

She said two keys for her is to look at every aspect of her car under a microscope and to never stop trying to be innovative. This year was an excellent example of this as she noticed something about the track specifications at the Finish gate. We won’t give away her secret, but she could design the car to get a slight advantage.

“You can’t control it, but you can accommodate around it,” she said.

And while Merritt doesn’t like to focus on being a girl thriving in an event historically won by boys, her TSA Advisor Richard Platt doesn’t hesitate to point out what she’s done for girls wanting to compete.

“We need more girls like her. Merritt has broken down so many important barriers for girls in a predominantly boy-dominated middle school and high school event. She’s the gold standard of what a girl can achieve and go out there and win,” Richard said. “I remember about three years ago at a state competition where a guy made fun of her when she won her award. She came back and used that for fuel to propel her into her championships.”

“People are going to be mean; people are going to be rude,” Merritt said matter-of-factly. “People don’t like when other people are successful, and that’s an unfortunate fact, especially when you’re a girl. I always believed you earn your respect, you don’t get it.”

Richard added that she is the perfect example of the idea that if you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves. 

This fall, Merritt study Material Science Engineering at Georgia Tech.

“They were my number one school, and I got an amazing opportunity,” she said. “I definitely want to be an engineer, but I’m not sure what field I want to go into.”

Whatever field Merritt pursues, we’re sure her drive, engineering ability, and attention to detail will serve her well. We’re also sure she will be remembered in the Dragster Design competition for years to come.

By PJ Graham, Web Content Specialist, and Dan Eckelberry, E-commerce Manager