The Air Drag Challenge: Like CO2 Dragsters for Today’s STEM Students

By Colin Wood
Apr 5, 2021 | Air Drag Challenge

STEM101, a national non-profit dedicated to improving STEM literacy for all students, has teamed up with cart, cabinet and storage builder CTech Manufacturing to launch the next generation of the CO2 Car Challenge.

This time around, though, instead of CO2 cartridge-powered balsa wood vehicles, participants use 3D-printed cars propelled by compressed air.

Its founders are calling it the Air Drag Challenge, and is aimed at middle and high school students who will have to design and 3D print their racers, though templates are also provided.

The cars are launched down the track using a “special compressed air-powered ‘Launch Box’” that’s manufactured by CTech.

Educators interested in the challenge are encouraged to contact STEM101 or CTech, who offer project packages for classroom use and free introductory education materials.

For more information about the Air Drag Challenge, visit, or read the full press release below:

Sun Prarie, WI – March 5, 2021: CTech and local STEM curriculum provider STEM101 have teamed up to develop the next-generation C02 Car Challenge. The answer; small 3D printed racecars propelled via basic compressed air.


Called the Air Drag Challenge, this new middle/high school level project challenges students to design, 3D print, and assemble their own small racecars. Students then line up their creations on a string-guided raceway, and are launched down the track via a special compressed air-powered “Launch Box”.

The Launch Box itself is manufactured by CTech, using the same processes and materials used on our industry-leading storage solutions. Everything educators need to implement this project; from hardware, to curriculum and support, is distributed conveniently by STEM101.

A Company Built On Drag Racing

So, how does an aluminum storage manufacturer get involved with a STEM program like the Air Drag Challenge? The story begins over 25 years ago when CTech Manufacturing was founded by NHRA drag racer; Jim Greenheck. He realized that trailer cabinets and toolboxes could be manufactured tougher, lighter, and more user-friendly. The rest is history, CTech has grown to serve many industries beyond motorsports. However, racing remains a critical part of CTech’s company culture.

Besides serving shop/laboratory storage solutions to many customers in the education market, CTech is involved in a wide range of hands-on outreach and education activities thanks to the James D. Greenheck Foundation. In recent years CTech has become increasingly involved in supporting competitive STEM-based teams in various domains such as robotics, SAE, and others.

A History Of C02-Powered Excitement

Some may remember carving their own C02-powered racecars out of balsa wood in middle or high school shop class. Then, after a coat of paint, C02 cartridges were inserted into the back, and cars were raced down the hallway. For many, this is a red-letter school project. A rare project that students cannot wait to take part in.

Air Drag Challenge takes all of the excitement from older C02 vehicle challenges, and injects modern manufacturing elements as well as STEM-oriented skills. This makes the Air Drag Challenge more relevant in today’s manufacturing climate, and better prepares students for pursuit of STEM-related fields.

A Changing STEM Landscape

3D printing has recently exploded into a valuable tool for ‘makers’ and ‘doers’ in the STEM realm. More importantly, 3D printing has carved out a niche in the education market as an affordable tool to teach basic automation, manufacturing, and other hands-on practices.

For the Air Drag Challenge, students carry out their vehicle design work on the computer using optional templates provided by STEM101. Varying levels of complexity and independence make designing and printing the vehicles highly adaptable to various skill levels and situations.

An Emphasis on Accessibility

So you want to take on the Air Drag Challenge? STEM101 has made it extremely easy to get started. Educators interested in the project should contact STEM101 or CTech Manufacturing to gain access to the project’s online portal, where you can:

  1. Gain a behind the scenes look at what we do at CTech Manufacturing.
  2. Virtually meet CTech employees and hear their stories.
  3. View free introductory education materials.
  4. View and order project packages for classroom use.
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View comments on the GRM forums
David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/2/21 3:54 p.m.

I remember our high school racing CO2-powered cars, but I don't recall participating. So either I didn't take the right class at the right time or it was just a dream. 

slowbird UltraDork
4/2/21 7:06 p.m.

I built CO2-powered cars in wood shop. The first one was a more standard design, aerodynamic curved wedge shape. I didn't win, but the car wasn't terrible.

The next year, I built one a bit differently. I made it twice as wide, and painstakingly carved it into the shape of my favorite real-life car at the time: a 1995 Mustang Cobra R. Including the double-ridged hood scoop shape, and the telltale Mustang sides. It was scaled so that the standard CO2 car plastic wheels we were supplied would look right on it. It was badass.

It was also so heavy that it couldn't get the whole way down the track.

minivan_racer UberDork
4/2/21 7:09 p.m.

I was in the TSA (Technology Students of America) and participated in CO2 dragsters.  I still have my last car hanging out in the garage.

tester (Forum Supporter)
tester (Forum Supporter) Reader
4/2/21 8:32 p.m.
David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/3/21 11:01 a.m.

In reply to slowbird :

Pics of the Cobra R? laugh

ProDarwin MegaDork
4/4/21 7:48 p.m.

This is very cool.

SkinnyG (Forum Supporter)
SkinnyG (Forum Supporter) UberDork
4/5/21 5:07 a.m.

Speaking as a shop teacher:

Freaking cool; I love it.

The problem is going to be the bottle-neck of the printer(s).  I don't have a class set of printers, and at maybe an hour (plus) per print, it would take a month of classes at least to puke out all the bodies.  The kids will lose interest in the project by the time we have the class printed, whereas with wood (or soldered 1/16" metal frame dragsters), the actual "production" comes from the students themselves.

But still very cool, and I want to do it.

stuart in mn
stuart in mn MegaDork
4/5/21 8:11 a.m.

The shop teacher at my home town high school has been doing a similar program for his kids, although they're still making the cars out of wood (which I approve of, the whole point of shop class is to teach kids woodworking skills.)

MadScientistMatt UltimaDork
4/5/21 8:23 a.m.

Looks a bit slower and less dangerous than CO2 dragsters, which is going to make them a bit less interesting.

The launch box looks like you could copy it with some plumbing and an industrial solenoid valve.

jharry3 Dork
4/5/21 11:24 a.m.

Seems like friction in the wheels/axles would be the limiting factor and not aero.   Same issue as back when I did a balsa wood racer gravity racer in the Cub Scouts.

 Maybe polish up the nozzle for smoother air/more focused air release. 

They don't seem to be going so fast that aero would make a difference.  Taking the wing off would help because the car would be lighter.

slowbird UltraDork
4/5/21 12:43 p.m.
David S. Wallens said:

In reply to slowbird :

Pics of the Cobra R? laugh

I'm pretty sure I still have it in a box of junk somewhere. If I ever find it I'll be sure to share.

SkinnyG (Forum Supporter)
SkinnyG (Forum Supporter) UberDork
4/5/21 12:59 p.m.

Weight is the biggest enemy, but aero certainly does make a difference.  The wings are dumb since you don't need downforce, but they sure look cool.

I know some schools have done air cars vs the CO2 cars.  It's less expensive, as the CO2 canisters get pricey.   Compressed Air Rockets are another one that's popular - the solid fuel rocket engines are pricey too.

And we always have to collect the CO2 empties so we aren't "DIY bong" parts suppliers....

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/5/21 1:24 p.m.

As someone who was building pinewood derby racers with a couple of excited little boys over the weekend - this looks like a very similar set of design challenges but with different tech for building the cars. More pixels, fewer wood shavings.

gunner (Forum Supporter)
gunner (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
4/5/21 6:11 p.m.

berkeley yeah I remember CO-2 powered drag cars. Wood Shop. Honest to God shop teachers name was Mr. Wood. My car won. There was one car that was faster by a lot but it snapped in half because it was too thin in the middle during my dragsters race with it. The finale was racing against Mr. Woods ringer car. My car beat his by about an inch. Best thing to happen to me in 8th grade. I've been waiting over 35 years for this story to be relevant.

MaxatCTech None
4/6/21 9:53 a.m.

In reply to SkinnyG (Forum Supporter) :

Hello, Max from CTech here. Really value your solid feedback on this project. The actual printing process has been a top concern of ours from the beginning. We've considered finding a 3D printing partner, supplying pre-made cars, anything to make that step more accessible... At the end of the day those designing/printing skills have a lot of relevance to the manufacturing climate we find ourselves in, so we don't want to take away from that. Any other feedback you have to share is more than appreciated!

MaxatCTech New Reader
4/6/21 10:07 a.m.

In reply to jharry3 :

The sky is the limit when it comes to finding more speed! The launch box was tested at 100psi (~25psi/car) with cars straight out of the box. The pressure can absolutely be adjusted to make it exciting for a wide range of track lengths. We actually shot these cars launching in slow-motion too, finding that the cars spent A LOT of time in the air as they make it down the track, with only the string tension keeping them from really taking off. This was most likely due to imperfections in the plastic wheel, or on the ground.

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