June 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

Car Culture: DPS-Mazda program gets young minds racing

Eight years old is when some guys become serious, hardcore car nuts. I didn’t just make that up — in the past 10 years for magazine and book articles I’ve asked more than 150 truly obsessed car collectors around the country to recall at what age they realized they were car nuts, and the majority said around third grade.

A lot of those car guys had some kind of input — a parent taking them to a race, car show, parade or dealership opening, or an uncle giving them a ride in a new ’67 Stingray, and these experiences branded their young minds with a lifelong car memory.

“I can see that happening,” says Alycia Meriweather, executive director of Detroit Public Schools Office of Science, who loves the idea of helping the district provide car experiences for local kids. “I have a nephew who is eight, and he absorbs a lot of information.”

So the DPS hooked up with carmaker Mazda’s racing department, one of the more prolific motorsports arms of any manufacturer with major efforts on grassroots racing activities to promote its sports cars. It also created R.A.C.E., meaning “Racing Accelerates Creative Education,” to expose young people to the sport.

“It’s programs like this that we need to do more of, to get to a broader audience. Otherwise, you’re talking to the same group of people,” explains Mazda motorsports boss John Doonan. “IndyCar and NASCAR, they don’t get that.” Shortly after the Obama administration’s STEM program in 2011, which is aimed at improving Science Technology Engineering and Math education, Mazda developed a learning forum designed to this year expose 10,000 high schoolers to sports car racing.

At the dozen top sports car races this season — including the May 31 Detroit race — Mazda supplied a replica racer, a driver and other experts from its factory race team to give an 80-minute presentation to area high school students about how racing is chock-full of the STEM subjects.

A few days before the May 31 sports car race at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix about 700 local high schoolers from 10 area schools assembled at the Martin Luther King Jr. high school auditorium to hear the Mazda program. “None of us are teachers,” explained John Doonan, head of Mazda’s motorsports. “We were thinking our program is not going to hold their interest.” But the program, which detailed the company’s Skyactiv-D high-tech diesel-powered race car, captured the Detroit students’ attention in an impressive manner.

“I know a few guys who want to be engineers. I think they’d rather be doing race cars,” explained engineering fan Deston King, a sophomore at East English Village high. “Yeah, I want to race, but I don’t want to get in the car, I want to control it.” Of particular interest to young student King is remote-controlled cars, and his interest piqued when Mazda race driver Joel Miller, just 26, explained to students that he learns the details of each race course by using a sophisticated computer-controlled simulator to “drive” the course before he actually sets foot in the race car. And that 100 percent of the race car is developed by computer software. And that there are 90 sensors gathering data on the race car.

Meriweather helped coordinate the event with Mazda: “Here we have the Grand Prix, part of Detroit culture, and we’re making sure kids have a connection to that. It’s the fields of STEM being connected to real life. The race could happen on the island and kids in the DPS would have no connection if we didn’t do this. It’s helping kids see what they’re learning in school actually is relevant in the real world, and racing is a great context for that to happen.”

Exposing kids to car racing in Detroit is a noble task, I believe, not just because it opens their imaginations to new career paths. It helps foster more car obsession, leading to bigger dreams: “When I was little I used to draw cars all the time,” reveals young student Heston King, “Now I want to actually build a car, the body of a car, in Detroit. It is the Motor City.”