More Than a Crash Course
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
RICHMOND Strapped into a go-kart that never goes fast enough for his taste, Tyrone Crossland zooms toward Turn 7 of the concrete indoor track and searches for what racers call the apex -- the quickest way through a turn.
One of the workers at G-Force Karts, located on the back porch of the Richmond International Raceway, is waving a flag as Crossland goes by. Was the flag yellow or blue? Whatever; he's got to find that line.
He struggled to find the apex in his first few laps last Saturday, and as a result, his times were slow by his standards. As one of the experienced students enrolled in the District's Urban Youth Racing School, Crossland, 14, is supposed to lead the others, show them how it's done. But still his lap times were unacceptable at 32 seconds, 30, 31, 30.
Finally, Crossland found his line and zipped around the curve, slowing down only a mile per hour or two on his way to improved times: 29, 28, 27. This was more like it. This was what Crossland signed up for.
"I always wanted to go fast," he said. "When I was little I'd ask my dad to go fast in his car, and he always did. It just feels good to pass people and go fast."
Anthony Martin fell in love with that rush while growing up in southwest Philadelphia in the 1970s and 1980s. More accurately, he was attracted to the idea of that rush. "I liked the speed, the challenge," Martin said. "I fantasized in high school about being a racer. It seemed like a sexy sport."
At that time, Martin said, there weren't many opportunities for young African Americans to enter professional auto racing. Today, he is working to change that. In 1998, he founded the original Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia, and 10 months ago, he supported the opening of a second location in the District.
The NASCAR-affiliated school, located at the IDEA Public Charter School, enrolls 50 students from across the region for a 10-week session and is free to all participants. The students, mostly minorities from ages 8 to 18, spend the first five weeks in the classroom, learning the basics of automobile engineering and other aspects of the racing industry, such as public relations, media and marketing. They also are taught the history of NASCAR, as well as the structure of team ownership and sponsors.
The students say the most memorable parts of the classes deal with actual racing -- track etiquette, rules and regulations and what all those different colored flags mean. "They teach you how to drive," Aziah Deal, 8, said. "They teach you to do better."
If there is such a thing as "racing genes," Deal surely has them. Both her paternal grandfather and grandmother competed in drag racing for several years, and her older brother went through the Urban Youth Racing School program with plans of becoming an engine designer. Portia Deal, Aziah's grandmother, works as a volunteer for the program when she is not teaching at IDEA. As for Aziah, well, she just wants to race.
"I like to do the turns," she said. "It feels like you're driving a real car."
All the students get a chance to drive in the last five weeks of the class, when they travel to Richmond each Saturday. At G-Force Karts, the students race at speeds as fast as 40 mph.