The familiar sound of an air gun pierces the air in the bustling shop as an aspiring master technician picks up a wrench from the tool cart. In the middle of the shop sits an ASA legal '07 Ford Fusion body mounted on a used Lefthander chassis. The 17-year-old heads toward the car to start his next project, but he won't have time. Just as he leans over the engine, the bell sounds. It's time for the next class. Somewhat disappointed, the aspiring mechanic stares down at the 400-plus horsepower motor for a minute before turning to grab his backpack.
Instructor Pete Raskovic prods the youth to go to class, promising that there is plenty of time to work on the car after the other classes of the day are over. Raskovic is one of the driving forces behind Urban Force Racing, an ASA Midwest Tour race team that is anything but your typical racing organization. The team is part of a newly formed high school technical program that gives at-risk students a viable alternative to succeed in class and subsequently graduate. The model program was started this year at Beloit Memorial High School in Beloit, Wisconsin, a town of about 105,000 people that sits on the Rock River, just north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border.
Urban Force Racing team member...
Urban Force Racing team member Tequad Tillman takes off lug nuts prior to a lesson from Raskovic.
During the summer of 2006, an entrepreneur by the name of Ken Hendricks contacted Raskovic, Beloit High's Auto Technology instructor. Hendricks had seen how Raskovic had turned around Beloit's struggling Auto Tech program, and now he wanted to talk racing. He picked the right guy. In addition to being an ASE Certified Master Technician, Raskovic grew up in the heart of Eastern Pennsylvania racing country and has more than two decades of racing experience.
Hendricks' idea? Build an asphalt Late Model team, run exclusively by at-risk high school students, and then take the team to the track for actual competition.
"Let's build a car of our own, build a strict curriculum for the kids, give them responsibility and ownership, and make them a part of the team," says Hendricks, the owner of ABC Supply Company and winner of Inc. magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2006.
A self-made billionaire, Hendricks is deeply committed to working with children and exceedingly passionate about giving back to the community where he grew up. He and his wife are involved in Head Start, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Ability Center, Boy Scouts of America, and more. But starting UFR is more than just trying to help eight kids in the middle of Wisconsin. Hendricks has a vision.
Ken Hendricks, founder and...
Ken Hendricks, founder and CEO of ABC Supply, is the inspiration, visionary, and sole funding stream behind Urban Force Racing. Courtesy of ABC Supply Inc.
"I dropped out of school in the 11th grade," said Hendricks. "I wondered how many kids out there could be as successful as I've been if they were given the right opportunity."
Urban Force Racing is all about giving them that right opportunity.
Hendricks' concept is brilliant in its simplicity. Students will be motivated to go to school if they find learning interesting and fun. "Kids need something to connect to," he says. "Not everybody has the physical attributes to compete in football or basketball, or the capacity to go to college. They'll want to learn math if they can see it applied to something interesting, like a race car."
The concept works, and the Urban Force Racing team is the proof.
"We've got some kids in our program who had no hope and were probably going to drop out of school. They went from showing up for school a couple of days each week and getting F's or D's to coming to school every day, and now their grades are A's and B's."
Hendricks and the UFR program are tackling problems at the most critical time in a child's development. "This is the most important part of the kids' lives, growing up, learning to be responsible, and most of all, giving them an opportunity to work with a team, which is something they would not otherwise have had an opportunity to do," says Hendricks.
Keenan Davidson (left) and...
Keenan Davidson (left) and Tillman flank Zach Hill as the three students work on the car's cooling system.
But before a teenager can excel in a team environment, they have to learn and become responsible. For 16-year-old Zach Hill, that responsibility is exactly what the program has taught him.
"Let me put it this way," the teen says. "Before this class, if I woke up late in the morning, I'd just keep sleeping. This [program] keeps me wanting to go to school, it keeps me looking forward to going to school."
Hill is a bonafide car guy, but it was the direction provided by the Urban Force Racing team that has motivated him to stay in school and work toward his dream of one day owning his own business. "This program has taught me hard work, deadlines, and respect."
Respect not only for others, but for himself, too, and he is not alone.
"This is like a dream come true," says Hill's fellow teammate Tequad Tillman. Tillman was born in Chicago and later moved to Beloit. "This program really helped me," the 19-year-old says. "Before, I used to have bad attendance, and it [UFR] really helped me stay in school. You want to be here to learn about it [the race car]. If you miss out, you miss out on learning something that you didn't know before."