The most popular spectator sport in the U.S. is American football. Close behind is . . . stock car racing. NASCAR races air on TV in 150 countries and millions of fans fill raceways each weekend looking to party and catch an adrenaline rush. But with only a handful of African-American drivers and even fewer women, NASCAR knows it has a reputation as a rich, white man's sport.
It's working hard to change that, through co-sponsoring schools dedicated to diversity in motor sports. One of them is the Urban Youth Racing School in the northeastern U.S. city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It's located on a cobblestone street under a highway overpass surrounded by abandoned lots, graffiti and trash. There's no sign above the locked door, only a security camera, a stark reminder of the dangers of life in the inner city.
But behind the door is a vibrant world. Teens sprawl on a sofa watching an auto race on a big flat screen monitor. Multiple computers line the tables for the kids who do data entry and for the mechanics to download information from each car's computer. And in the back room, student mechanics work on miniature racecars in preparation for the team's next big race.
It's fun with a purpose, says Anthony Martin, the man behind it. "Did you know you can change tires and make a $100,000 a year changing tires in the racing business?" he asks rhetorically. "The goal was to introduce them to the different jobs and to let them know these jobs exist. If you don't know, how can you be a part of it?"
In 1998, the NASCAR fan and a few of his friends wanted to show the kids from their inner city neighborhoods what NASCAR was all about, and its potential to change their lives. The only problem was that the inner city kids were never exposed to the sport. So Martin and his friends brought NASCAR to them, in the form of evening and weekend workshops that actually got kids behind the wheel.
Martin stresses the school offers more than a chance to drive around a track. "We say to them, 'Listen. You know what? (If you) go through our Build A Dream Program and you feel like this is what you want to do with your life, you can become part of our Driver Teen Development Program.' And they either become drivers in that program or they become mechanics in that program. They are with us for a few years. Once they go through that program they are then on their way to college."
With the help of corporate sponsors, more than 2000 students have gone through the program. A second program was started in Washington D.C. last year.
The Urban Youth Racing Schools use a mix of track work and traditional textbooks to teach kids not just about NASCAR, but about the importance of education. Martin says it also gives them exposure to the myriad jobs in the world of professional motor sports. "They are doing internships, working for NASCAR, watching races, whatever. They are really a part of it." He says when they get to college, many of them already know what they want to do. "Oh, you know, 'I want to major in Marketing because I want to be a marketer for one of the teams,' or 'I want to major in mechanical engineering because I want to be one of the people who build engines for the teams.'
15-year-old Jade Gillis knows she wants to be involved in the motor sports industry. She heard about Martin's program when she was 10, begged her mom to let her join and has been a racing school addict ever since. "It's something different than like basketball or football, track and all those after-school, different things," she explains. "Racing is a real adrenaline rush. You are trying to win. Everything. You are trying to race. It's a lot of fun." She currently is the only girl racing at the advanced level.
She knows the program has made her a better student. And while Jade imagines herself out on the raceway breaking all kinds of records, she also recognizes the importance of college and realistic dreams. "I mean if I can't get to the racing part that good, then the business part is just as great as racing," she admits. "There's a lot of money and I like money so that would be great."
19-year-old Lamott Ebron has been in the program for 5 years and shares the same desires as Jade, when it comes to having a good job and being part of life on the track. But his introduction to the school was different than Jade's. "I had no direction," he recalls. "My dad didn't live with us or anything and, [I was] just watching my mom go to work and all that. You know I just had no direction. I had no clue who I wanted to be. Nothing really to look forward to or up to."
Lamott says the Urban Youth Racing School changed his life and gave him the direction and motivation he was craving. He has taken full advantage of the program's networking opportunities, like internships and meeting sponsors at the track. His goal is to work for Hendrick Motor Sports, one of the top NASCAR teams. "Initially I wanted to be a mechanic. Now I am leaning more towards some of the upstairs work, the PR (public relations) department or the Communications/Marketing Department." This fall, Lamott will begin college at a small university in Charlotte, North Carolina, a NASCAR hub and home to Hendrick Motor Sports headquarters. He'll work there part-time while in school.
The Urban Youth Racing School could produce its first professional NASCAR driver next year. One of its students who will be graduating from college has already been offered a racing position with NASCAR.
As the school enters its 10th year, founder Anthony Martin says there are big plans for it and the changing face of NASCAR. He hopes to open programs in 5 more major cities, predicting, "You are going to see the flood gates start opening in the next two years!"