Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your….Robots!

Each spring in Indiana, as the city of Indianapolis and Indy Car teams prepare for the greatest spectacle in racing, high school robotics teams head to the venues hosting the World Championship for the highly acclaimed Sport of the Mind, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics. This April, for the sixth time in their thirteen years of existence, Center Grove High School’s own Red Alert Robotics 1741 earned a spot in the field, held at Cobo Arena in Detroit this year.

What some may not know is how the connection between Red Alert and the Indianapolis 500, specifically robotics team mentor Mark Horne and Indy car driver Charlie Kimball, helped lead to that moment in time.

Red Alert 1741, district robot game finalist and winner of this year’s Chairman’s Award, advances to the FIRST World Championship in Detroit.

A Powerful Relationship Begins

Horne grew up in England and honed his skills in avionic electronics while in the British Army. He moved to California in 2000 with his wife and their infant son to take a job with Toyota Racing Development. In 2004, he moved to Chip Ganassi Racing in Indianapolis, and settled in the Center Grove area. When his son became involved in FIRST Lego League (FLL) robotics at Center Grove Middle School North, both parents went along for the ride. Two years later, their daughter also joined the team.

It was about this time that Horne also forged a unique relationship with Kimball. The two met at the race team’s shop and struck up a conversation about robotics, which resulted in Kimball attending a FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) tournament at CGMSN. Kimball had been interested in building machines since childhood and was excited to support robotics.

Kimball also disclosed his diagnosis of Type I diabetes and shared how his blood sugar is remotely monitored during races via sophisticated electronics. The robots used in FIRST also make use of remote sensoring, especially in autonomous operations mode. The connection between racing and robotics was made and became even more visible when Kimball agreed to carry the Red Alert team logo on his racing helmet at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 2015.

Kimball’s helmet carried the Red Alert team logo at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

When his son entered eighth grade and joined the FTC team, sponsored by Center Grove High School, Horne decided to take on a larger role as a mentor. His involvement continued as both his children advanced to FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). Horne brought the Center Grove teams to the Ganassi shop to see first-hand how the technology used in the high performance cars could be translated to the robots they built each year.

The Red Alert team has also demoed their robot for the Ganassi employees, and earlier this season, a female Ganassi engineer visited the team to talk about careers in the racing industry for women. Ganassi has also made in-kind and financial donations to the team as a result of the expanding relationship.

Tradition Built on the Bricks

Indy car driver Charlie Kimball receiving the team’s  “Make it Loud” award from members of Red Alert 1741.

FLL teams use a prepackaged set of Lego bricks and sensors, similar to what is commercially available as Mindstorms and EV3, to design and build a small tabletop robot for competition. Teams also research and present a solution to a real-world problem, ranging from environment to medicine, as part of the process.

FTC and FRC teams are required to assemble a larger robot from scratch, using their own parts and design, to play against each other in a larger game field—the FRC field is the dimension of a regulation basketball court. The team members—under the guidance of volunteer mentors—machine, wire, construct and program these robots according to predetermined guidelines and rules in a six-week marathon each year. In addition, FTC and FRC teams participate in and organize various community outreach events to educate the public about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

At the end of the six weeks, the FRC team literally bags their completed robot. They also submit a video and a series of essays to the FIRST organization to be considered for a special designation, the Chairman’s Award. The submission is judged, along with the robot, at each district qualifying competition and the district championship. Along with winners of the robot game and various other awards, the recipient of the district Chairman’s Award, considered the most prestigious in FIRST robotics, gets an automatic bid to the World Championship.

Red Alert 1741 robot, Otariinae, ready for this year’s FIRST competition, called Power Up, based on popular video games.

Continuing to the Finish Line

The Chairman’s Award is given to the team that demonstrates continuous involvement and contribution to the advancement of FIRST’s mission to transform the culture in ways that will inspire greater levels of respect and honor for science and technology, as well as encourage more of today’s youth to become scientists, engineers and technologists.

This year, Red Alert was the recipient of FIRST Robotics’ highest honor. And in the middle of their video, carrying the message “We Are Red Alert” is none other than Charlie Kimball, speaking passionately on their behalf. Kimball eloquently explains the impact of a partnership between Red Alert and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a cause near and dear to his heart.

Kimball says, “It’s really cool to see these students take such an interest in engineering and math and even better when they gave back to the community.”

Although Kimball is no longer with Ganassi racing, he continues to be an avid supporter of Red Alert.

The Red Alert Robotics FRC team had its highest finish ever this year at the World Championship and hopes to be back again next year. As teams in both the Indianapolis 500 and the FIRST Robotics World Championship get ready to start their “engines” each year, Horne, Kimball and Red Alert 1741 will continue to spread the message of robotics and the power of STEM.

Link to YouTube Chairman’s video submission

ABOUT FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology)

Combining the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology, FIRST Robotics Competition is called the ultimate Sport for the Mind. High school student participants call it “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.” Under strict rules, limited resources, and an intense six-week time limit, teams of students are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors. It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get. Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team. Visit


FIRST Team 1741 Red Alert Robotics is located at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana, USA. Established in March of 2005, Red Alert has focused on spreading the mission of FIRST, “To inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.” Visit

Please direct any questions to Nathan Coulombe at

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