Western High School junior Justyn Byrne lifted the first-place trophy over his head, clutching a blue Michelin hat in his other hand, and soaked in the moment atop the podium.
Byrne was now a champion race-car driver just like his hero Dale Earnhardt Jr., pretty impressive given the fact that Byrne, 17, doesn’t even own a driver’s license.
“Now I regret not getting mine,” said Byrne after he and his five-member crew from Western topped the 10-school field — six from Miami-Dade and Broward counties — at the Formula E School Series, which took place two hours before the Miami ePrix on Saturday and on the same track. “I always said I wanted to be a race-car driver. But they always told me it was a dangerous thing.”
The only thing in danger Saturday was Byrne’s lead after starting at the pole position and fighting runner-up Jonathan Morales (TERRA Environmental Research Institute) for position much of the final three laps. But Western made a late pass in the 20-minute race, a testament to Byrne’s handling and the stamina of his electrically powered car, which every team of students assembled themselves.
Never miss a local story.
The vehicles were sponsored by Florida Power & Light Company and sent to students in kits. Many were assembled during a marathon build day at Florida Atlantic University in early February.
“It took us a total of 12 hours,” Byrne said. “Friday night and then all day Saturday.”
With the victory, Western earned $5,000 to fund additional science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. Runner-up Terra earned $2,500 and third-place finisher Cypress Bay earned $1,500. The prize money was awarded by FPL in an effort to promote sustainability education.
“We targeted schools with robust enough STEM programs to handle this challenge,” FPL spokesman Richard Gibbs said. “This is where technology is headed. This is a testing ground.”
A similar amateur race was held in Argentina last month before the Buenos Aires ePrix, the previous race in this 10-race Formula E series. The school series will follow Formula E to Long Beach, California, next and also appear in Berlin and London later this year.
Byrne said joining Western’s STEM program allowed him to become more confident and excited about working with others. Byrne is also part of Western’s solar-car team, which will participate in a national competition at Texas Motor Speedway in July.
For local school officials, Saturday’s race provided a unique opportunity with team-oriented benefits. Byrne was just one of many examples of that.
“It’s been a fantastic, fantastic experience for all the kids involved, for all of our students and teachers who have had their hands in the project,” said Dr. Justin A. Koren, lead teacher at Cutler Bay Academy. “It has allowed kids hands-on learning and really taken what you study in a textbook and put it into an actual project with real results.”
Byrne and his team, supervised by Dr. Chin-Tang Liu, thought they could coast to easy victory after a fast start.
“Then I looked in my rear-view mirror,” Byrne said. “This silver car was going so much faster than me.”
That was Morales, who overtook the lead momentarily in the final lap and turned the finish interesting.
“This was the first time that I approached racing in any sort,” Morales, 18, said. “I never thought I could even come close to second place.”
Compared to the Miami ePrix, where drivers utilized two cars that both exceeded 90 mph, the student drivers used one car the entire race that maxed out around 25 mph.