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Florida sophomore takes 2nd Dragster Design gold

Some well-known names of past TSA competitors echo in the hallways of Southeast High School in Florida. It looks like the name of the 2015 TSA Dragster Design winner’s name might soon join them – and that’s part of her motivation.

“Everyone talks about Ahmad [Hares]. Everyone talks about Mark Nanny. They were great, they won, they did this,” said Merritt Kendzior from Southeast High School. “I want to be one of those names that in a few years some kid hears, ‘Oh, yeah, you gotta be like Merritt.’ I want to inspire people that have an interest to be good to get in and to have this kind of passion for this competition.”

“I love engineering. I didn’t grow up playing with Barbie dolls. I grew up building things. It’s what I’m used to.”

At the 2015 TSA National Conference this summer in Dallas, Texas, the sophomore took her second gold in Dragster Design at the high school level. She also won it one time in middle school. This year, Merritt’s dark, flame-covered dragster smoked the competition based on the race time, drawings, and more. Yet she remains humble about why she wins.

“I’ve been doing it since seventh grade, so I’ve had a little experience with car design. It was just the car. I don’t know – it was just luck,” she said, shrugging. “I enjoy winning, but I love learning more . . . . even here talking to the other competitors, they might know something you don’t. Getting to know the different competitors and the other TSA events – learning new things – that’s how you move forward in life.

“I think that’s what I enjoy, and winning is just an added bonus.”

Her teacher and TSA adviser Richard Platt paints a different picture. He said Merritt spends three to four days on design, a week or more on her tool pass for the CNC machining, and one to two weeks on finishing the car. Starting with her middle school days, Merritt and her family have been very driven to learn the design side of the dragster process.

“She, in the last five years, has done a tremendous amount of R&D on her own part,” Platt said. “I use that R&D, and we’ll sit down and have raging debates or great discussions about techniques of how to sand, how to approach, how to finish – techniques on why we do a principle a certain way. So I’m learning from her. She’s putting back into my program into what we’re doing.”

The dragster champion is willing to share her knowledge with others – to a degree.

“If they ask and talk with me, I’m willing to share some things,” she said. “Not everything – I want to keep some things under wraps – but I like seeing other people succeed. I like helping them get better. I want to help them get better and improve the level of competition, especially in this event.”

Merritt became in interested in building cars after a soapbox derby car event she participated in when younger. That year, she learned how to use the CNC mill and it piqued her interest in creating dragsters with the technology. Her winning cars are designed in a CAD program and cut out on a CNC mill, which she says provides excellent symmetry.

“When hand doing it, you have to come up with the design almost as you go. You can sketch it out but if something happens you have to be on the fly to fix it. Whereas with CNC, you can design it, make changes, mill it again,” she said, adding that there is value in learning how to do it the old school way. “I think you should always hand build a car before you CNC mill because you learn that appreciation of getting to know how to use all these tools, getting to know the materials that you’re working with, and the car itself.”

“If I was allowed to do it in college, I’d do it in college. It’s so much fun.”

Though some might be surprised to see a girl caught in designing dragsters, Merritt sees it differently.

“I’ve never viewed it as a guy or girl thing. I know I get some criticism with me being a girl, and it’s kind of different to a lot of people, but it’s never affected me personally. I love engineering. I didn’t grow up playing with Barbie dolls. I grew up building things. It’s what I’m used to.”

At the Florida TSA state event this year, she participated in at least five events ranging from Children’s Stories to Transportation Modeling, which she also competed in at Nationals. She said the modeling event gives her more skills to take into a career.

“With that event, you’re learning how to do clay model mockups and things like that, so you’re learning this design process that they actually use in the industry,” she said. “One day if I want to design an actual car, I’m going to have to mock it up, I’m going to have to do concept sketches.”

Merritt would like to eventually become an engineer for Formula 1 racing. Before that, however, she wants to keep striking dragster gold.

“I want to have my set of cars at the end of it where this is all I’ve done. If I was allowed to do it in college, I’d do it in college. It’s so much fun.”

Merritt’s Dragster Timeline:

  • 2015: 1st in Dragster Design HS (1.037) and 5th in Transportation Modeling HS
  • 2014: 1st in Dragster Design HS (0.907 sec)
  • 2013: 3rd in Dragster Design MS (0.905 sec)
  • 2012: 1st in Dragster Design MS (0.892 sec)


To learn more about the 2015 TSA national event, click here. To see last year’s feature of Merritt, click here


By PJ Graham

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