By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report
and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
About 15 years ago, Anthony Martin used to watch auto racing on television with a buddy of his at his home on 21st and Tasker.
A huge fan of racing, Martin once dreamed of being a race driver himself, but was too old to pursue the sport at the time. He wanted to kids to experience the passion he had for the sport in the hopes that they would someday become race professional car drivers, however.
Martin somehow got in contact with Indy racecar driver Michael Andretti who brought his car to a location in West Philadelphia.
“The first event that I ever did I got Michael Andretti to bring his race car into West Philly and that was huge,” Martin said. “It brought 300 kids out… What we saw from the kids who were there that were inner city kids that liked racing.”
For the last 15 years, the Urban Youth Racing School has not only become a place where kids can learn how to race cars and study the mathematical and scientific aspects of the sport, it has become a full-service venue that provides mentoring and educational opportunities that go beyond the sport of racing.
“The thing that was more powerful than anything else is our passion for the kids,” Martin said. “My passion has always been for the kids being successful whether they be engineers or not.”
More than 3,500 students have come through the doors of the UYRS’s headquarters on North Front Street where they have introduced young people to career and educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The Urban Youth Racing School recently celebrated its 15th anniversary during its awards banquet at the National Constitution Center near Independence Mall. The young people in the program, who range in age from 6 to 18, were honored for their participation and their achievements in the program.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams attended the award ceremonies and said the UYRS has done an outstanding job in terms of reaching young people and guiding them in the right direction.
“I’m awestruck by the breadth and the impact and the reach of the program,” Williams said. “There are a lot of anti-violence initiatives, but clearly this program is a standard bearer… Considering everything that’s occurred in this country in Boston, Connecticut or the lives of the kids who die on the street of Philadelphia, this program represents the possibility of not only removing children from harm’s way, the but the possibility of them doing something for themselves and others.”
While the dream of having one of their students compete as drivers on major racing circuits such as NASCAR has not been fulfilled, the UYRS program has expanded into several initiatives such as Urban Youth Naval Engineering Program and the What it Takes E-Mentoring Program.
“It’s grown a lot,” Martin said. “We’re strong in STEM (science,technology, engineering and math) now and our e-mentoring program.”
Over the years, the UYRS has also developed partnerships and relationships with NASCAR along with several racing teams within the sport including Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Rensi Motor Sports, the U.S. Navy, Chevrolet, Bank of America and the Knight Foundation.
U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Kevin McCoy, who gave the keynote speech at the awards ceremonies, said the Navy needs young people, especially those of color, to consider careers in the sciences and that programs like UYRS do well with helping steering kids in that direction.
“If you look at the 99 percent graduation rate and if you look at the 90 percent who go on to college and the close association that they have with the Naval professionals at our ship engineering centers here, we think we’re get these young folks back into our employment and they’re going to be the engineers and scientists of the future that keep our Navy No. 1.”
The impact of this program is not only felt on kids in Philadelphia, but children in other places. Seventeen-year-old Christopher Morgan participated in the program even though he lives in Brooklyn, New York. His parents drove him down the New Jersey Turnpike every weekend for 22 weeks so that he can be a part of the program.
“This program means a lot to me because you learn commitment because you can’t expect everything to fall in your lap, you have to be committed,” Morgan said. “In New York, there were no mechanical engineering or racing programs like UYRS. I love racing and I want to do that or design engines.”