Universal Vare students building a dream

Universal Vare students use a racing simulator at Urban Youth Racing School. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Zaafir Williams has broken one racing record and he’s looking for more.

The eighth-grader from Universal Vare STEM and ARTS Academy in South Philly earned a few minutes of fame by winning a go-cart race at the shore. He’s hoping there are more accolades down the road on a much bigger track. 

“Over the summer, I was in Ocean City at this race car track and I set the record for the track for the fastest lap,” Williams said. “They took a picture of me and put it up on the wall so that people can see my face.”

The thought of racing cars has always triggered excitement for Williams and some of his classmates who are now attending the Build a Dream Program at Urban Youth Racing School on Delaware Avenue in Fishtown. Urban Youth Racing School has been in existence for 25 years, teaching thousands of underprivileged kids all about motor sports and professional race cars mainly as an after-school program. However Universal Vare saw a bigger opportunity and became the first school to officially link up with Urban Youth Racing and offer it during school hours.

“We already have SeaPurge and robotics and science labs,” Vare Principal Karen Howell-Toomer said. “The next extension would be a program like this.”

Vare started the 10-week program on Dec. 11 and two groups of 20 students load up on a bus to take part in twice-a-week instruction over a five-week period, followed by five weeks of actual racing at the K1 Speed indoor racing track in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. It’s an opportunity that most inner-city kids don’t receive, but it’s the mission of Urban Youth Racing School.

“Where we’re from, growing up, you really don’t see our skin type, African Americans, doing this stuff,” said Jahsaan Richmond, an eighth-grader at Vare. “The fact that we, as a new generation, get to come up here and do this and set a foundation for later on, really means a lot.”

A Golden Opportunity

Urban Youth Racing School was created by married couple Anthony and Michelle Martin in 1998. Anthony’s strong marketing background in sports led him to great success and popularity in the professional sporting world, forming relationships with athletes like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Penny Hardaway and Randall Cunningham.

Remember those gold-tip shoelaces that Cunningham wore during the Kelly green era of Philadelphia Eagles football?

“I designed that product,” Martin said with a laugh, while unearthing a vintage set from a desk drawer. “He and I signed the first-ever shoelace contract. Not shoes, but shoelace. The NFL actually came back at me pretty hard trying to sue me when it got worldwide attention. But that’s how all this started. With shoelaces.”

If you go back further, Martin always had a love for motor sports, which was a predominately white sport. Growing up in Southwest Philly, there weren’t many friends to share his interest.

“I was always a racing fan, but I was a closet racing fan, growing up in Southwest Philly,” Martin said. “I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s and my buddies didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Universal Vare students go to work at the Urban Youth Racing School. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Martin never had those resources to pursue racing during his youth but wanted to make sure that changed for future generations in the area. He started off with a bang.

“We did our first event with Michael Andretti and had like 300 kids,” Martin recalled. “He actually brought his race car to a Southwest Philly school yard and they were just blown away. But the thing that he talked about the most was all the jobs that there are in car racing. You don’t just have to be a driver.”

Martin called up Ed Rensi, the former CEO of McDonald’s and owner of Team Rensi Motorsports of NASCAR racing. The two saw a broader audience for the sport.

“There was this idea of introducing these urban kids to a multi-billion-dollar racing industry,” Martin said. “To get involved in this industry, you need to have two things: money and relationships. I don’t care what color you are. You need to have both of those.”

An Unfortunate Event

To date, one of Urban Youth Racing School’s biggest allies is NASCAR driver Kyle Larson, who was suspended in 2020 for using a racial slur during an iRacing event. Larson, who had been a spokesperson for Urban Youth Racing, accepted responsibility for his actions and took racial sensitivity classes to atone for his mistake. The Martins stood by Larson.

“We knew he wasn’t a racist because we had been working with him since 2017,” Martin said. “This happened in, like, 2020. Once that all happened, nobody wanted to touch him. He came to us and we gave him a history lesson on African American history and he sat right in that chair and listened. We’re the only urban racing company in the country and we stood behind him. I thought he deserved a second chance.”

Larson returned to racing the following year and won the NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Larson thanked the Martins for standing by him and donated $100,000 of his winnings to Urban Youth Racing School. He remains a huge supporter of the school.

“Now he’s a major spokesperson for us,” Martin said. “Our kids can call him on the phone when they have questions here. I equate it to somebody calling LeBron James while working out in the gym. He’s on that level with us and he’s probably the most talented driver in NASCAR.”

Atten Hut!

In a classroom filled with racing memorabilia, signage and simulators, students had better stay focused because instructor Edward John Butler runs a tight ship. The former military man and juvenile corrections facilities expert has been a part of the Urban Youth Racing team for a decade and helps kids learn the ins and outs of racing cars, while showcasing his knowledge of the history of NASCAR. He, too, had a love of technology as a kid and aspired to do something big.

“When I was a kid, I looked at the screen and I wanted to be James Bond,” Butler said. “Then I saw Shaft and I asked my mom how come Shaft doesn’t have the same toys as James Bond? She said maybe nobody taught him or he didn’t have the money or the resources. I wanted to know how I could do it. She told me I could find someone to train me or go to the military, but not to ask her for it. I was able to go to the military and receive a lot of training that I now teach to kids.”

Contributed photo

Butler’s passionate teachings of braking zones, drafting and aerodynamics are crisp and concise, but he has a soft-spoken side when he takes off his teaching hat. He nearly instantaneously forms a bond with the class of 20 wide-eyed students in front of him as they all pursue the same goal.

“When we come in here, I let these kids know that this is our opportunity to get to the next level,” Butler said. “They saw a NASCAR driver the other day and they wanted to be him. The next driver could be someone they know. Our goal is to push them as far as they can, and I love what I do.”

Sometimes they surpass expectations.

“One of the kids was beating a NASCAR driver on the simulation,” Butler said with a big laugh. “The NASCAR guy was looking at him, like, ‘What are you doing?’ For me that was really rewarding.”

One of the school’s many success stories is Butler’s own son, who is a Hollywood stuntman. Brandon Edward Butler went through the program and learned to drive and use drones. A few years later, he dialed his dad to relay some good news.

“I got a call from him and he said, ‘I’m Will Smith’s stunt double,’ ” Butler said. “He said all the stuff we teach here now is all the stuff he was going to do for Will Smith. And there are other kids who have gotten jobs for NASCAR as engineers or are in driving programs. It got them on the path to opening their mind up to their dreams.”

Green Flag

Forty kids from Vare go to bed at night with new dreams and possibilities thanks to Urban Youth Racing School. Those dreams will become more vivid as the second half of the program begins in January as the students get behind the wheel. Thanks to Butler and the curriculum, they will be well-versed when it’s go time. Like the race, the course comes full circle and the Martins have witnessed so many times.

“Once something clicks in a child’s head, everything begins to click for them,” Michelle Martin said. “Once racing clicks, education clicks and their future, too. It makes a huge difference. They can now ignore all the other stuff out there because they have a path. This is something they can make a career out of.”

Michelle Martin helps a Universal Vare student set up a racing simulator. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

She’s seen the early stages, before they become success stories.

“We’ve worked with justice system and we’ve had kids come in here with ankle monitors on,” Michelle said. “They still need a chance. They are just in that group that got caught up with stuff and need some direction.”

Checkered Flag

Although the program might not cater to everyone, the experience doesn’t always end at 10 weeks for those who truly want to chase a career in racing. Urban Youth Racing has placed former students in positions with additional training.

“Once they complete the Build a Dream program, we have an engines program and a drone program,” Anthony Martin said. “We’re doing stuff with simulators and I-Racing. Racers now start with simulators before they learn with go-carts. These simulators are the closest thing to being on the track. The Build a Dream program is a starting program for them to see if motor sports are something they really want to get involved in.”

At Vare, that enthusiasm runs thick. The students are ready to roll.

“I get to make the announcement when the bus arrives to pick them up,” Howell-Toomer said. “Before I can finish the sentence on the loudspeaker, they are lined up outside of the office.”

Martin says he sees the fire in their eyes as they walk through his door.

“This is the first time we’re doing this with an actual school and it’s been phenomenal,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for 25 years and a lot of our students have gone on to be engineers and some have gone on to work for NASCAR. These kids at Vare are some of the best kids we’ve worked with and we’ve worked with over 8,000 kids. They are focused and excited to be here. It’s great to be working with them. They’re part of the team.”