Two Pickerington High School Central students recently earned the right to compete next month against the best soapbox racers in the world at Akron's hallowed Derby Downs Track.

Since 1936, hundreds of youths and adults have striven to qualify for an opportunity to ride down the Derby Downs hill in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron.

But as far as Central's Tiger Tech adviser Levon Thomas can determine, there's never been an all-student team comprising a mechanic and a driver to win a local championship and qualify for the world championship.

Central 2017 graduate Nick Johnson and senior Taylor Thompson did just that, winning the Columbus Local Soap Box Championship in the Super Stock Division on May 6.

That victory secured the mechanic and driver an invitation to compete July 16 to 22 in the world championship, but the two are taking it in stride.

"We had no idea (we were) the first student-led organization to qualify for a world spot through a local competition until we came home and thought about it," Thompson said. "We'd just like to represent our program."

The "program" is Tiger Tech, a club at Central through which students use science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills to compete against others from central Ohio and beyond in activities such as robotics and trebuchet, a medieval siege weapon similar to a catapult, that students annually design for events such as the Picktown Throwdown Pumpkin Chucking Trebuchet Contest.

Led by Thomas, the club has implemented soapbox racing. It owns eight soapbox cars, which Johnson and other mechanics modify by any means within the rules of organized racing.

"At the end of each season, we put the cars back and don't use them for a while," Johnson said.

The heat affects their alignments and expands the metal, he said.

"We have to change brake pads, do general upkeep and get the car ready. We also have to get the drivers situated because every little bit of air resistance matters," he said.

Johnson said he would use expertise he has gained through classes and his Tiger Tech experience to go to Central Ohio Technical College in August. He said he plans to pursue an engineering degree. He also plans to help Thomas extend Tiger Tech activities and learning to Ridgeview Junior High School through an expanding robotics program.

"The biggest thing with engineering is the ability to apply it to real-word situations," Thomas said. "It's really important that as those kids move on, they challenge themselves and use critical-thinking skills."

Johnson handles technical aspects of mechanics and design elements for the team, and Thompson must do what she can physically to make it as fast as possible.

It's a job that eliminates many just because of size.

Logistically, drivers can't be much taller than 5 feet, 3 inches to fit into their cars.

In general, they must weigh 100 to 130 pounds.

"Any lighter, and we have to add weight and the cars don't move around as well," Thomas said.

Those restrictions require a disciplined regimen.

"I'm in charge of keeping in shape throughout the season," Thompson said. "I do a lot of stretching and drink a lot of water."

About 20 students took part in soapbox racing through Tiger Tech this past year, and Johnson and Thompson said the club provides a number of outlets for students who want to combine STEM learning and competition with more time-honored aspects of high school life.

As a first-year member of Tiger Tech's soapbox program, Johnson said he became involved primarily because he enjoyed the camaraderie the club brings while also offering opportunities to problem solve with fellow students and compete against others.

"Tiger Tech helps people who often keep to themselves to be more social," Thompson said.

Ahead of next month's world championship, Johnson and Thompson are collecting donations, which could result in the placement of donors' sponsorship stickers on their racer, to help offset expenses for the trip.

For more information about the trip and sponsorships, email nickrj3@gmail.com or tgthompson17@gmail.com.

As for the race, both team members were quick to note that weather conditions such as wind or a wet track could affect outcomes significantly.

But they said they seek a top-eight finish in their division, and they want to enjoy themselves while representing the community.

In turn, they hope Pickerington residents would take the trip to see them compete July 22 and that they'll see "a pod of purple" as Thompson races.

"We just want to represent Pickerington itself because that's where we're from and we want to represent Tiger Tech," Thompson said. "You see a lot of sports teams and what they're doing, but you don't see a lot about the engineering team.

"I definitely want to invite the community to come support us. That would be awesome."

Johnson added, "Just representing the club, that's a big deal. I think it shows we have an excellent teacher and mentor in Mr. Thomas, and it shows what we've been able to accomplish in tuning the cars.

"We're going to go out there and do our best."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate