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History of CO2 Dragsters

by Rob Wagner

CO2 dragsters are miniature vehicles powered by liquid CO2 and raced on a track. The hobby traces its roots to the larger prewar soap box derby racing that used gravity to propel the cars and the early postwar period of using CO2 to power miniatures. The hobby is popular among young boys and taught in schools to encourage interest in science and technology.

Origins

The concept of miniature dragster racing on tracks predates organized miniature pinewood derby races popular among young boys beginning in 1952. Slot-car racing using electrical power to move 1/24 or 1/32 scale cars on a slotted track gained popularity first in England and later in the United States in the late 1950s and 1960s. CO2 cars arrived as early as 1947 when Douglas Aircraft plant engineers built the miniatures with CO2 packs and raced them on their lunch breaks. But racing CO2 dragsters was more or less a hobby for adults with an appreciation for science. There were no CO2 dragster clubs in the 1950s on par with pinewood derby groups.

Education

It was not until the early 1970s that the CO2 dragster hobby received recognition for something other than to pass the time. Ohio State University helped establish new seventh-grade curriculum in most U.S. schools. The curriculum included the World of Manufacturing, which included encouraging students to design and construct their own dragsters with CO2 as a power source. The cars were initially identified as Land Speed Record Assault Vehicles, but teachers soon switched to the colloquial “dragsters.” School districts collaborated with Pitsco Education, a private company that supplies educational products, to provide building kits, and Pitsco contracted with independent toy makers to manufacture the parts. Equipment included the launch gate, track, finish line and needles to punch the CO2 cartridges. Over the decades, school science classes introduced wind tunnels for wind resistance testing and electronic timing components. As of 2011, advanced technology included computer-assisted design software and computer numerical control milling to produce the vehicles.

The Science

Generally, enthusiasts and students start with a 12-inch wedge-shaped wood and use hand and power tools to design and shape it. The body receives wheels, axles and paint. The designer inserts a CO2 cartridge into a hole at the rear of the car and places it alongside another car on a 75.5-foot track on either an elevated surface or the floor. A launch button activates a steel firing pin to punch into the cartridge and starts a digital timer. Once the firing pin strikes the cartridge, the liquid CO2 boils and escapes through a nozzle that thrusts the miniature dragster forward from the launcher. The racing vehicles break infrared beams at the finish line to stop the timers to indicate the winner. The dragsters ride into cushions or towels to prevent damage at the finish line.

Organized Events

Since 1979, the Technology Student Association stages annual national racing events. It has since evolved into multiple categories for middle and high school students. The racing conferences typically attract up to 200 students. In 2011, Texas hosted the TSA national conference.

About the Author

Rob Wagner is a journalist with over 35 years experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines. His experience ranges from legal affairs reporting to covering the Middle East. He served stints as a newspaper and magazine editor in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Wagner attended California State University, Los Angeles, and has a degree in journalism.

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