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 Tequad Tillman takes off lug nuts prior to a lesson from Ra
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 CEO of ABC Supply, is the inspiration, visionary, and sole fund
"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 Tillman flank Zach Hill as the three students work on the car's
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."
Team Manager and Beloit Automotive Technology Instructor Pete Raskovic discusses front-end
Tillman will graduate this year, and he admits that the program has helped him focus on pursuing a career in automotive technology. "I want to use this opportunity to achieve a career goal and make my life successful."
Like Hill and Tillman, 17-year-old Craig "Squirrel" Burns wasn't setting any attendance records at Beloit Memorial before entering the UFR program. And just like Hill and Tillman, that has changed. "This is keeping me in school," says Burns. "Before the program I did not like school, but now I've learned about suspension, tires, and steering. Shocks is the main thing I do."
This future shock specialist is planning on heading to Blackhawk Technical College to become a master technician after graduating from Beloit.
Spearheading Urban Force Racing is team manager Pete Raskovic. To say that he is the glue that holds the program together would be an understatement. His energy for the program and for implementing Hendricks' vision is infectious, and it has spread to the kids.
"They [Hendricks and Raskovic] are definitely the ones looking out for the students. Without them, the program never would have gotten off the ground," says Burns.
The team's driver, Midget ace Michael "Slim" Pickens, shows students how he likes his safe
Make no mistake: This is not a touchy-feely shop class. Raskovic demands a lot from his students, likely a lot more than most high school educators. "I push them. Last week, I pushed them real hard," says the teacher. "A lot of them came in blurry eyed because they were tired, but it's good for them."
He also uses some creative techniques to keep everyone focused on the task at hand, like the time he had to address a communication gap within the team: "I told them, 'I want you checking e-mail every day.' So for a test, I sent the team an e-mail that said, 'If you don't respond to this e-mail within 24 hours, you will be cut from the team, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.'" Not surprisingly, it worked; the communication gap closed, and everybody remained on the team.
"Pete expects us to work at our best," says student Cesar Roman. "He pushes us to learn as we go. There are going to be mistakes, but you learn from them."
Life lessons in a race shop-what better place to learn?
ARCA teams like these running at Daytona earlier this year could provide advanced training
Words like respect, hard work, and teamwork are continually heard when you ask the students what they are learning in the program. "Working with others . . . teamwork, it's been really big. Without it, it's bad," continues Roman. "You know once Pickens [Michael Pickens, the team's driver] gets on the track, if something goes wrong, we're the ones who did all the work on that car. We're responsible."
Responsibility and teamwork can be foreign concepts to at-risk youth. In the world of Urban Force Racing, these concepts are at the very center of the program. So far, it seems to be working. "There are kids with us who had 30 discipline referrals last year," explains Raskovic. "This year, zero-not a single discipline referral."
Every student in the program has made great strides since joining UFR. But there are also opportunities to move up the ladder within the program. Raskovic runs the team just like a typical race team, with leadership roles open to students who deserve them. Keenan Davidson is the youngest member of UFR, having just turned 16. He also occupies one of those leadership roles, the student crew chief. It is a job he respects and is proud of.
"I got to be the leader because of my work ethic. The hard work paid off," says Davidson proudly. "The program provides us experience while teaching us teamwork."
Pickens gets comfortable in his student-mounted racing seat.
During his interview, Davidson hinted at some exciting plans that the team is working on for the students in the future, but he was hesitant to explain. Then Raskovic let the cat out of the bag.
"We hope to be able to get students up to the next level," he said. "We want to establish an internship program with a national touring series such as ARCA or maybe the Craftsman Truck Series."
The idea is to provide a constant source of dedicated talent to those upper series. It's an idea that benefits the students, providing them a solid future, and race teams, providing them an educated source of new blood.
The New Zealand dirt racing scene probably isn't the first place you'd think of to get a driver to wheel your ASA Late Model, but that's exactly where Raskovic ended up. Pete met 23-year-old Michael "Slim" Pickens through UFR's Public Relations Manager Steve Pados, a longtime motorsports professional from Eastern Pennsylvania. Pickens, a native Aucklander and dirt Midget specialist, was in the States pursuing an asphalt career. He had won just about everything there was to win in his native New Zealand, as well as neighboring Australia, and has set his eyes on a NASCAR career.
Although his racing stateside has been somewhat limited, he has won features at Wilmot and Angell Park in 2006, and in 2005 he won Rookie honors and finished an impressive Sixth in the Chili Bowl. He was also the lone dirt racer to make it to the finals of the much publicized Roush Racing "Gong Show."
Urban Force Crew Chief Danny Brown (left) talks with Raymond Fallin.
While Pickens does not have a lot of asphalt experience, nobody sees that as a detriment, least of all Raskovic. "I think that a dirt driver brings an added skill set to racing," says Raskovic. "During the Roush test, Carl Edwards said that Pickens had the best lines of any of the drivers, and that was his first time ever on asphalt."
Pickens is excited about the opportunity to race the ABC Supply/ Urban Force Racing Fusion, but not just for the chance to race on pavement in the U.S. "Having the opportunity to work with children and to teach them about this sport is so important for everyone's success. We cannot race successfully without that added interest from today's youth as racing fans," says the Kiwi.
Pickens will run the entire 2007 ASA Midwest Series schedule behind the wheel of the ABC Supply Fusion of Urban Force Racing.
Raskovic is not the Lone Ranger in this racing program. He has a number of veteran racers and first-class mechanics on his side, starting with Danny Brown, the Urban Force Racing crew chief. Brown has built an impressive rsum working with Indy Car teams and Barber Racing Series teams. Urban Force also has its own chassis specialist, Steve Bruno, who comes to the team with more than 30 years of expertise in suspension and alignment setup. Rounding out the adult side of UFR is mechanic/crewman Greg Bowles, an ASE Certified Master Auto-Diesel technician with over 28 years of industry experience. Greg will be in charge of the team's transmission and gearing program. An interesting side note is that Bowles holds a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and has worked with youth for over 23 years as a martial arts instructor.
The 2007 Urban Force Racing Team. Kneeling from left to right: Raymond Fallin, Keenan Davi
Beyond the nucleus of the team itself, the biggest fan of the whole program could very well be Beloit Memorial's principal, Carlton D. Jenkins. Jenkins started teaching at Beloit back in the late '80s but subsequently left and was gone for eight years. When he returned to Wisconsin, he came from Ohio, a state with numerous cutting-edge technical education programs. So when he first met with Hendricks and Raskovic about Urban Force Racing, he was instantly sold.
"Right off the bat, I knew this was a major opportunity that you don't normally have in this part of Wisconsin," said Jenkins. "To have the potential to race, I was really excited about it. The students get to apply what they are learning in the classroom to a real-world situation. Our students need something non-traditional that can catch their attention and make learning relevant. This program gives them just that."
Urban Force's success in the classroom has actually extended beyond the eight students in the current class. "It has generated a lot of pride in students who aren't even involved in it," explained Jenkins. "I've seen a lot more pride and a lot more discipline throughout the whole school. It has had a totally positive influence."
That's impressive. And Jenkins, Raskovic, and the rest of the administration got a first-hand look at the depth of Urban Force Racing's reach when they pulled the car onto the front lawn of the school. "You should have seen the number of students who came out," Jenkins exclaims proudly.
The success of the program has led the school to commit to a pair of prep classes for next year. The classes will essentially be introductory classes to the UFR program, accomplishing a couple of objectives. First, it will keep the interest level high for the 21 students currently on the UFR waiting list. Second, it prepares the kids to enter the program so they can hit the ground running, which should elevate their performance level both in the shop and on the track.
"We're not just doing it, we are trying to be competitive as well," says Jenkins, who is personally chartering three buses to take students to the team's first race.
The Urban Force Racing program is really designed to keep the kids in school and focused on studying while using racing as the magnet. Although this is only the first year of the program, and they have yet to race the car, there are plans to expand the program both at Beloit and in other area schools. The ultimate hope is to have programs such as UFR at schools throughout the country.
"They [Raskovic and his assistants] are going to present a quality program that hopefully other districts can learn from," says Jenkins.
All of this started because of a billionaire dedicated to giving back. "Urban Force Racing is one of the most innovative ideas ever created in this sport, and this is what Ken dreams about day in and day out, helping the kids," Raskovic says.
If you called Hendricks a visionary, you wouldn't be far off. When asked where he sees the UFR program going in the future, he was quick to answer. "Schools [today] need to be teaching our children valuable skills for a career working in factories, trades, etc." Hendricks sees racing as the perfect vehicle to teach many of those skills, and UFR is the model to build upon. "Think of the thousands of dollars they spend on football and basketball. In the future, I can see high schools having a race team and racing against each other at their local Saturday night track."
And what better way to get kids back into racing?
Courtesy of Racing Speed Associates/ASA Midwest Tour
Perhaps the only bad thing about the Urban Force Racing program is that Raskovic had to turn away 75 students because of lack of room. He could only accommodate eight. Enter Steve Einhaus and the ASA Midwest Tour, the newly formed asphalt Late Model tour based in Burlington, Wisconsin. Einhaus and Raskovic put their heads together to come up with a solution to the problem, and when they presented their idea to Hendricks, he told them to get it done.
It's called The American Speed Association Educational Series. Designed as a race within a race at ASA Midwest Tour events, the series allows students enrolled in accredited automotive technology programs nationwide to work as crew members on an ASA Midwest Tour Team. Participating high schools and technical colleges will be linked through the Educational Series to a Midwest Tour team in their area that has agreed to work with the automotive technology instructor, students, and the sponsoring school. The participating ASA Midwest Tour team carries the school's banner on the car, and the student crew members work with the race team weekly during the season, maintaining the car in the shop and at the track. At each Midwest Tour Series race, teams in the Educational Series score additional points based upon their on-track performance. At the end of the season, the team with the most points will be crowned ASA ES Series Champion. It will be possible for one team to win the ASA Midwest Tour and ASA Educational Series championships.
The innovative program even provides an ASA Educational Series representative to help schools execute the program and make the connection to the race team. Students taking part in the program will earn scholarships based on their participation and their team's success in the series. For example, Ohio Technical College offers full-ride scholarships to all of the student participants on the championship-winning team. In addition to OTC's contribution, other schools are getting involved. Ultimately, there will be partial scholarships available, and every student in the program will receive a scholarship of at least $1,500.
At press time, there were 16 ASA Midwest Tour teams fully committed to the Educational Series, with students already working with them. Einhaus anticipates more will come on board before the season starts.
Team Dan Lensing is one of those committed teams and has Beloit Memorial High School students Kyle Hopper, Andy Kolden, and Tim Jensen all working with him.
"I think the Educational Series is really important. It will be getting the youth back into the sport of auto racing," Lensing said.
The ASA Educational Series kicks off with the inaugural ASA Midwest Series race on April 28 at Elko Speedway, in Minnesota.