Kids Swap Matchbox for Race Car

Children from Alaska to New Jersey spend the summer at Race Camp learning math and tricks of the track.

In the shadow of the mighty steel and cement grandstand of the Atlanta Motor Speedway, 13 stock cars are raring to go.

Splashed with chartreuse and emblazoned with numbers, these mechanical powerhouses are held at bay only by the steady, gloved hands of their drivers, who wait to master the course before them.

But this is not exactly the Richard Petty or Jeff Gordon crowd. When these racers are homesick, it's not for their wives, but their mothers. The average height at this starting line? Something around 4 feet.

This summer, a new phenomenon has roared into Atlanta. It's a first-of-its-kind concept called Race Camp. Modeled on the popular Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., - and drawing on Americans' accelerating interest in race cars - it brings in drivers from as far away as Alaska and New Jersey.

But Race Camp isn't merely a video-game come-to-life for the 10-to-17-year-olds who attend. Behind all the horsepower and skidmarks, there's a lot of high-powered calculation of torque, r.p.m., and the like.

Organizers say the purpose isn't necessarily to train kids to be stock-car drivers, but to teach them math, science, and technology in a hands-on way, through a sport that's already captured their interest.

"We want to open up their eyes, show them something new and different," says one of Race Camp's three founders, Bart Williams. "Learning can be fun - that's what we want them to know," he says.

On any given week from June to the end of August, 35 campers scurry between the renovated mechanics' garages that now serve as "cabins" and outdoor pavilions where engine parts are propped up as teaching tools.

Boys and girls (there are a few girls in most groups) can race each other on computer simulations of America's famous tracks. Campers even see the other side of the sport by touring the Speedway's press boxes and sending a story about their adventures to their hometown newspapers.

But each day's highlight is the time spent behind the wheel of a half-scale race car. Campers learn everything from the basics of driving to the more technical skills of turning sharp corners in succession. On the final day, the budding drivers speed through a difficult loop, while judges record their time.

"It's great. It's a lot of fun," says Jonathan Butkovic, from Pittsburgh, after his first turn on the tracks. He has raced go-karts before, but says they have a totally different feel. "The cars go faster. You've got a lot more power."

After a successful year, Race Camp's three founders - all of whom worked at the NASA-run Space Camp - think the program may really zoom next year. They expect 10 times as many campers - 350 a week.

The numbers also point to Americans' growing interest in racing, though. Some 5.5 million people went to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series last year, for instance. And 140 million watched on television.

And the fact that campers this summer have come from 34 states and Canada, shows that geographic boundaries that once hemmed the sport in have largely fallen.

"What you've got now is the commodification of sports," says Southern history scholar Andrew Doyle, who has just written a paper on sports in the South at Emory University in Atlanta. "TV is breaking down the regional barriers."

And it's not only for kids. Race Camp plans to offer a fantasy camp for adults who think getting the feel of a stock car is the next best thing to meeting racing superstar Dale Earnhardt in person. Next summer, adults too can take a spin on the same track used by their favorite race car driver and sleep where their sport's heroes once sprawled. It can be their way to live that famous racing line, "The Legend Continues."

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