Off to the Races! The RPM Foundation is mentoring the next wave of automotive preservationists
In Pittsfield, Connecticut, Gracie Hackenberg, 22, works as a mechanic at Donovan Motorsports, a vintage Jaguar restoration, maintenance and racing shop. She can take apart and rebuild an XK six-cylinder engine blindfolded.
In Austin, Texas, at the age of 19, Kelly Hattori fell for an old ‘66 Mustang fastback, got it running and rebuilt it herself as a daily driver. Kelly, now 27, has taken her Mustang on a major road trip every year, each time visiting a different part of the country, stopping at car shows and concours along the way, and sharing her love of old cars with other enthusiasts.
In Seattle, Bruce Jackman, 24, was considered weird by friends for liking classic cars. He found a job in a local auto body shop just to be around old cars. He describes block-sanding a rear quarter panel in the same way a sculptor might describe his own work.
These three young car people, and many others like them across the country, are linked together by the RPM Foundation, an organization that mentors young people who happen to love old cars and want to make a career in restoration, maintenance, vintage racing and other vintage vehicle-related fields. These three, along with 32 other like-minded students -- one as young as 12 -- have traveled to the Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Austin to attend RPM’s Off to the Races program at the SVRA Vintage Racing National Championship. The goal of Off to the Races is to introduce RPM students to members of the vintage racing community -- after all, these racers could someday be their future customers or employers.
As its initials represent, the RPM Foundation champions the Restoration, Preservation, and Mentorship of the classic car, motorcycle, and boat industry. It enlists the help of key educators, institutions, thought leaders, and industry experts to foster the next generation of restoration artisans and craftspeople. As the educational arm of America’s Automotive Trust, the services, resources and grants provided by RPM safeguard and nurture the future of the collector vehicle industry. One of the speakers who addressed the students, Tony Parella, President and CEO of SVRA, emphasized the need to induce a new generation of enthusiasts to join the vintage vehicle industry, which is getting old – literally. It’s composed mostly of older people. Parella expressed the need for new blood to keep the hobby alive and well.
Lyn St. James has loved cars since she was a kid. She grew up to become one of the most accomplished and respected racing drivers in the world. The first woman to win the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, Lyn went on to break 31 international and national closed circuit speed records that she held for over 20 years. With tremendous energy and infectious enthusiasm, she serves as an Ambassador for RPM: “After years of working in the world of racing and supporting women athletes, I turned my attention to education and cars. I use my many contacts in the world of automobiles to support RPM’s mission:
linking young people to vintage cars through education and connecting young people to opportunities.” As group leader for "Off to the Races," Lyn hosted talks by Tony Parella and NASA astronaut (and RPM Ambassador) Drew Feustel, and shepherded the group of 35 students, mentors and parents to the various race-team paddocks to meet the vintage race teams and learn about their operations. Some of the teams on call were Vintage Racing Motors, Lisa and John Weinberger, K-Hill Racing, Prestige Racing, and the Travis Engen team.
Diane Fitzgerald, the charismatic and bull-horn-wielding President of RPM, was everywhere at once, mostly staying in the background, making sure the "Off to the Races" program went smoothly. The bull-horn was key to communicating over the racetrack ruckus whenever she and Lyn addressed the group as it moved through the paddock and staging area at COTA. The "Off to the Races" program is part of the networking goal of RPM, as explained by Diane: “At RPM we created a national network of partners to ensure that any student – regardless of their location – would have access to RPM’s programs, resources, and grant-funded institutions. The idea is to build a network that constantly renews and perpetuates itself.”
One of the many highlights of the day was meeting RPM Ambassador and NASA astronaut Drew Feusel, recently returned to Earth after commanding the International Space Station and honored as Grand Marshall of the SVRA Championships. A self- professed car guy, as a kid Drew dreamed of becoming two things – an astronaut and a Formula1 driver. When vintage racers Kris Kaiser and Bruce Hamilton learned of this, they graciously loaned Drew a race suit, helmet, and an open-wheeled car to race. The reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving skills of a NASA astronaut came in handy in a race car. During his group race Drew reduced his lap time by an astounding 23 seconds as he simultaneously learned the circuit, his car, and how to work his way through a field of speeding cars. As he pulled off his helmet after the race, his expression was most likely the same as when he landed his space capsule in the Kazakhstan desert after leaving the space station – Mission Accomplished. It became obvious that had Drew Feusel pursued F1 instead of space, he would certainly have achieved that dream as well.