When Anthony Martin was a teenager growing up in West Philadelphia, he dreamed of becoming a professional race car driver. But as a city kid, he didn’t have an opportunity to participate in the sport. Even taking a trip to see an actual race, he said, was too expensive.
“There was really no way to get involved in it,” Martin said. “They have baseball fields in the ’hood and basketball courts in the ’hood, but they don’t have go-kart tracks in the ’hood.”
Instead of a racing career, Martin ended up working in the sports marketing field. Then about eight years ago, he came up with an idea that would benefit inner-city kids who shared his passion for motorsports.
In 1998 he founded the Urban Youth Racing School, a nonprofit organization created to expose Philadelphia children to the many different career opportunities within the $20 billion motorsports industry.
Nearly 1,000 kids have passed through the program. Martin proudly points out that everyone who has completed the racing school has also graduated from high school.
Now Martin is looking to take his program national.
In May, a second Urban Youth Racing School will open in Washington, D.C. City officials from New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago also are interested in opening schools.
The Philadelphia program, which has 700 kids on its two-year waiting list, draws most of its students from the city — but it has also accepted students from New York and Virginia. About 90 percent of the school’s students are African American, the remaining 10 percent are Hispanic.
“We select kids on a first-come, first-served basis, but they have to be totally committed and parents have to be involved,” Martin said.
The Philadelphia racing school — based out of a converted warehouse on North Front Street — is free for students, ages 8 to 18, and totally supported by private contributions from sponsors.
“This year, our budget is $409,000,” Martin said. “That’s the most we ever raised. The first year our budget was $50,000.” General Motors, which gave the school $125,000 last year, is its largest sponsor. Other supporters of the school include NASCAR, Microsoft, Sears and Philadelphia-based Sunoco.
Universal Technical Institute Inc. of Phoenix, which has a campus in Exton, just entered into a sponsorship agreement with the racing school. UTI will provide 12 new Honda engines and technical installation assistance for the school’s Super MiniCup cars.
Earlier this month, three Urban Youth students starred in a new NASCAR television commercial — part of a campaign NASCAR launched in support of Black History Month. The campaign showcases the accomplishments of African Americans throughout NASCAR’s history and demonstrates the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing’s expanding diversity efforts.
In the commercial, the students pay homage to Wendell Scott, the first African American to win a NASCAR race; Sam Belnavis, a NASCAR Busch Series team co-owner; and Bill Lester, who currently competes in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
“We love the racing school and we love Anthony,” said Tish Sheets, director of diversity for NASCAR and a member of the racing school’s board of directors. “We’re very pleased with the progress of the school and what Anthony’s doing. Our entire industry, NASCAR and our teams and sponsors, have opened up our doors and our hearts to the school and its students.”
Sheets said student interns get a lot of “one-to-one” time with experts in the industry. “It’s fun for everybody who gets to share their expertise with the kids, who just soak it all up. Everybody loves it,” she said.
The school says it provides students with an “opportunity to enhance their education and life skills by using motorsports as the magnet and education as the compass.”
The school offers two 10-week “Build A Dream” programs, consisting of five Saturday classroom sessions and five track sessions, that run from June to November. The sessions provide exposure to science, math, chemistry, mechanics and business. The school also has a year-round Urban Youth Racing School team development program that puts promising students behind the wheels of real race cars.
New students start out racing go-karts at Arnold’s in Oaks. Advanced students graduate to racing Super MiniCup Cars competitively in the Poconos and at tracks in upstate New York, North and South Carolina and Florida. Some move up from there to Legend series racing.
“Some kids get behind the wheel of a race car and it scares them off [from racing], but they still want to be involved behind the scenes,” Martin said. “We show them how they can work as engineers or get involved in building engines or be a crew chief. You can make $80,000 a year working on a pit crew. Urban kids never had the first clue these jobs existed.”
He said the school helps students land internships with NASCAR racing teams and sponsors, and make key connections that could lead to future employment.
“Some of our kids never left West Philadelphia,” he said, “and now they are traveling to Charlotte [N.C.] to work with racing teams.”
Philadelphia college students Leon Simmons and brother Jason first became motorsports fans when they were growing up in Mount Airy.
“A lot of my friends were into basketball or football or track, but I wanted to get involved in something different,” said Jason Simmons, 18, a freshman at Temple University studying mechanical engineering. “I remember one Sunday none of my friends were around. I was bored. My brother and I were sitting in the living room when he turned on the television and we watched a NASCAR race. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Leon, 19, who is studying mechanical engineering at Community College of Philadelphia, said the day after his mom first heard about the racing school she enrolled both her sons.
“A week later we were part of the school,” Leon said. “I’m still part of the school and I’m having the time of my life.”
The brothers have graduated from racing MiniCup Cars to Legend Cars. Both aspire to be professional racers on the NASCAR Circuit.
“When I first walked through doors [of the racing school] I thought they were going to teach us about racing, and I thought that would be a good thing,” Jason said. “But they also taught us about the business as well. We got a strong appreciation for the business and marketing side of the sport. NASCAR wouldn’t be what it is today without the marketing.”
Martin said most of the school’s graduates are now in college or technical schools. While no graduate has become a pro NASCAR driver, Martin said, a few have demonstrated real potential.
Later this year, several students from the racing school will be depicted as featured characters in a revival of the old cartoon “Speed Racer.”
Martin was beyond thrilled when the producers of the show called and wanted to include the Urban Youth Racing School in the program.
“I was a huge Speed Racer fan,” said Martin, who has a model of the Mach 5 featured in the cartoon on his office desk. “I remember every episode.”