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With Las Vegas area students returning to school this week, I thought it would be a good time to highlight a motorsports program that goes the extra mile to reach out to our nation’s youth.
The NHRA YES (Youth & Education Services) program, which is presented by the U.S. Army, brings students together with motorsports industry leaders, NHRA drivers and U.S. Army soldiers at 14 of the 24 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events across the nation for one-of-a-kind learning opportunities. Whether it’s talking to a NHRA team mechanic about how an engine is assembled, getting insights from world champions and driving stars into what it takes to compete at the highest level or learning about a vast array of career opportunities available in the motorsports industry and the U.S. Army umbrella, the NHRA YES program is an experience students remember forever.
According to the NHRA YES program’s website, the program “allows participants the opportunity to learn about and explore career opportunities while gaining new perspective on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) by taking what they acquire in the classroom and applying it to real-world experiences. Attendees participate in mental, physical and emotional challenges with various vendors, complete with free admission to the race track for the day.”
I stopped by the program session that was set up adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Dirt Track during the DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at The Strip at LVMS in early April, and it was quite a production – and a heck of a field trip!
World Champions Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher are heavily involved in the program, and Brown stopped by the Las Vegas session to speak to a tent full of hundreds of students and educators. He talked about his life and career and his desire for setting goals and urged the kids to explore what motorsports careers have to offer.
I recently spoke with Brown on the phone about his thoughts on the program and what it provides to students.
“The good part of being a part of it is that I get to share my life story with all of the students,” said Brown, a two-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion. “I get to tell them how I became who I am and what it took for me to get to where I am in my life. It’s almost like a career fair, too, and you’re able to tell them about your shortfalls and how you conquered them.
“It’s always good to be part of a program where you can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Brown urges the students to think outside the box.
“One thing I tell them is to push themselves and to be uncomfortable,” said Brown, who clinched his second world title in Las Vegas last fall. “What I mean by uncomfortable is doing something out of their comfort zone. Don’t settle and say, ‘I can’t do that, so I’m not going to try it.’ There’s nothing they can’t do.
“The only way you’re really going to learn is by pushing yourself to your limits each and every day. The hardest thing in life is to not get comfortable where you are and to move forward.”
Students who attended the Las Vegas YES program session were able to see dragsters and racing motorcycles up close, go through U.S. Army physical training tests, inspect U.S. Army vehicles and even get a look at the Las Vegas Fire Department Bomb Unit’s robots.
In addition to Brown, Don Schumacher Racing Executive Chef Malcolm Clark and U.S. Army Sgt. Edwin Maldonado spoke to the group about career opportunities in their fields. The program’s goal in introducing students to a variety of professionals is to educate them about what is out there and available in the workforce.
The hope is to spark an interest in a student that could help set them on their future career path. Plus, students are learning how crucial STEM is to the motorsports world.
“They have lesson plans where they can apply what they’re seeing to what they’re learning in the classroom,” said NHRA Marketing & Educational Services Manager Amber Vinson, who manages the YES program for the NHRA. “They can take these real-life experiences and see how, through mathematics, (teams) are getting higher speeds and world records.
“Also, they’re seeing how many different careers are out here within NHRA and motorsports, how we bring in our own doctors or chefs – careers you don’t really think you’d see out at a race track.”
Brown helps land the message about how important STEM is to the industry that has given him the opportunity to succeed.
“Whether it’s science or math, sometimes you don’t realize how important it is until it’s time to use it,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Man, I wish I had paid better attention in school.’ The message is to get them involved and excited about it and to make them realize everything you can do with it.
“Whether you’re in motorsports or everyday life, (STEM) affects what we do every day.”
Participants get a great deal out of the program – which has been around for 27 years and sponsored by the U.S. Army for 16 – and it gets rave reviews from educators.
“We live in a rural area, and these kids don’t have a lot of opportunities to travel and see the world,” said Don Zimmer, who teaches English at Silver Valley High School in Yermo, Calif. “It’s so well-done, and I think it opens a lot of students’ eyes to the fact that they could possibly be part of a team or support crew and that there are a lot of options available to them if they stick to their studies and think of it as a potential career.”
Zimmer came to Las Vegas with a group of students this spring and has taken groups to YES program events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona for nearly a decade.
“We ride the bus with the kids, and they’re always excited about it,” Zimmer said. “I’ve never heard anything negative about (the program), and I think they realize more and more what’s out there. Maybe they start studying in auto shop or taking themselves seriously and setting short- and long-term goals.
“It allows them to realize what’s going on and start maybe seeing a path or career they want to pursue.”
The program also gives the U.S. Army a chance to speak with students about potential careers in a number of fields through the armed forces route.
“They find it’s a beneficial program for them because they’re getting to talk to the students, and they have a different approach than they had in the past,” Vinson said. “A lot of people think they are there to pressure them (to enlist), but they’re not there to do that. They’re there more to show a positive outlook and that, if you don’t have an option and want to go to school, there are these options available.”
For Brown, the heart of the program’s message is about inspiring others to do great things with their lives.
“When I look at the students, they’re the next generation that’s going to be our country’s leaders,” Brown said. “I just want to give as much as I can to the next generation coming, and I think that’s the only way we can succeed and keep our country as great as it is.
“I was lucky enough to have great mentors who looked after me every step of the way, and that’s why I look at the YES program as an opportunity. I want them to be successful and to succeed in life.”