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The Urban Youth Racing School is about more than fast cars

This after-school program prepares kids for the race track - and for life.

A promotional photo is seen behind Zander Whitaker as he listens to Ed Butler speak at the Urban Youth Racing School in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia on Saturday, Nov. 02, 2019. The Urban Youth Racing School is an after-school program that teaches under-served kids about engines, cars, racing, and using classes in STEM to understand the basics of mechanics and engineering in general.
A promotional photo is seen behind Zander Whitaker as he listens to Ed Butler speak at the Urban Youth Racing School in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia on Saturday, Nov. 02, 2019. The Urban Youth Racing School is an after-school program that teaches under-served kids about engines, cars, racing, and using classes in STEM to understand the basics of mechanics and engineering in general.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Malachi Neal was 8 years old when he saw kids not much older than himself speed by on go-karts during a scheduled race in downtown Philadelphia,sponsored by the Urban Youth Racing School (UYRS). Standing behind the barriers and hay bales, Neal immediately knew what he had to do: Enroll in UYRS.

Ten years later, Neal credits the school for his current path to Tuskegee University and aspirations to become a pilot.

“They helped me figure out what I wanted do for my career,” said Neal, 18, of Drexel Hill. “I don’t think I’d be where I am now without them.”

Don’t let the name fool you. UYRS is about more than fast cars. Founded in 1998, the nonprofit offers science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education to traditionally underserved youth ages 8 to 18. It has grown from a single program using go-kart rides as rewards for good grades in its STEM-heavy classes to one offering multiple curricula, mentoring and, in many cases, opportunities: to win scholarships, to find a passion, and to prepare for the future.

“UYRS has been part of our village for the last 10 years,” said Neal’s mother, Tyra Virden. “(Malachi’s) always been a boy who loves planes, trains, and automobiles, but it was only through UYRS that he found he wanted to be a pilot. He’s had great support.”

More than 6,000 students have taken part in UYRS programs and 98% have graduated high school, founder Anthony Martin said. Classes are held at the UYRS offices on North Delaware Avenue, where the chairs are former race-car seats and a table is held up by car shocks. Students who do well in class earn trips to a New Jersey track with go-karts and other smaller, more kid-friendly vehicles.

But the program isn’t about training race-car drivers or launching the next speedway legend.

“Would we like that to happen? Absolutely, but it costs millions of dollars to go to that next level and the statistics are probably 99.9% that you won’t (make it),” Martin said. “Our goal is to teach things that will help make [kids] successful in life.”

It began when Martin, who’d been working in sports marketing, persuaded legendary IndyCar driver Michael Andretti to talk to young people in Southwest Philadelphia.

“He brought his race car, and I brought 300 kids,” Martin said. “They’d never seen an Indy car before, and they were blown away.”

Andretti told the group that there was more to racing than driving.

“He said, ‘I wouldn’t be successful if I didn’t have great engineers, if I didn’t have great tire changes, if I didn’t have a great chassis guy, if I didn’t have a great crew chief,’” Martin recalled. “I saw an opportunity to educate kids.”

With start-up funds from NASCAR team owner Ed Rensi, Martin created the Build A Dream program, offering lessons on race-car design, the ins and outs of engines, and the history of minorities in auto racing. The students spend five weeks in the classroom, taking tests, writing papers, and making presentations, as well as five weeks on the N.J. track.

“In school, kids are like, ‘Why am I learning this? I’m never going to use this in my life,’” Martin said. “But we show them an industry where using science and math helps you be successful. You learn what an apex is in geometry. If you can master the apex on the track, you’re probably the fastest driver out there.”

Signs of the school’s success? Its longevity, growth, and supporters, sponsors, and partners: NASCAR champions Michael Andretti, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.; the U.S. Navy; the Knight Foundation; General Motors; and Chevrolet, to name a few.

“It combines our company’s focus on STEM-based education with our passion for racing,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports. “The combination of learning in the classroom and the fun of applying those learnings to karting on the track is a great way to stimulate education.”

Jim Farmer, a retired GM vice president and chairman of the UYRS board of directors, describes the UYRS curriculum and instructors as “unmatched in the United States.” Actor Will Smith’s production company and partner Mojo Films are even producing a docu-series about the school.

In addition to Build A Dream, UYRS offers a 22-week naval engine program, which includes class time at the Navy Yard and instruction from Navy engineers; and an eight-week, remote-piloted vehicles program, in which participants learn to fly drones while learning about physics, mathematics, and aerodynamics.

“I have had the pleasure of watching thousands of young people become proud, and productive young men and women with a real sense of purpose,” Farmer said. “These programs were in practice long before STEM became a buzz word.”

UYRS’s newest partnership is with the Southwest Philadelphia-based Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum. This year, the Classic Car Trust, a collectors group, ranked the foundation’s vehicle collection the best in the world.

Those classic cars need upkeep, and UYRS is putting together a restoration program. It’s also developing a basic drivers’ education curriculum.

“They don’t offer drivers’ ed in the schools anymore,” Martin said, shaking his head in amazement.

Michelle Martin, founder Anthony’s wife, created a competition in which students earn points for their UYRS coursework and their regular schoolwork. One of the first students to finish on top was Kiah Williams, who later graduated from Stanford University and cofounded a nonprofit that redistributes unused medicine.

“The racetrack isn’t the only place where we have to compete,” Michelle Martin said. “Kiah was getting 100 on all of her tests. She made it be cool to be smart” — at UYRS — “and that’s something that’s never left. We’ve been able to capture it, put the ‘smart juice’ in a little bottle and the kids get to drink.”

Ernie Ross, 25, drank the juice. He met his mentor, who works in the Pentagon, through UYRS. Ross went on to graduate from Tuskegee University and is now a civilian engineer for the Navy.

The school “helped guide me to where I am today,” Ross said.

UYRS gave Cameron French, of Mount Airy, the opportunity to pursue his love of racing by connecting him with its NASCAR partners. While in college in North Carolina, French worked in a pit crew.

“The school is a window into a variety of career fields. It provides education without necessarily making you feel like you’re being educated. It offers mentorships and partnerships and the chance to meet like-minded people who look like you and understand your background,” said French, now on the UYRS board of directors. “Recognizing you have a base and foundation of support is so important.”

UYRS introduced Malachi Neal to flying via the drone program. He has since earned his private pilot’s license and has notched 65 hours in the air. He aspires to be a commercial pilot. That said, he still doesn’t have his driver’s license.

“Flying a plane is a little easier,” he said.

“He’s not allowed to drive my car,” his mother said.

“But,” responded Malachi quickly, “I’m allowed to fly her in the plane.”