PORTLAND, Ore. - Try racing down a quarter mile straightaway at 114 miles
per hour. It's all over in 12.008 seconds from a standing start. Those are
championship stats of course. But that's what the 12 kids who drive for
Kalispel Racing are - champions for two years running.
Spring weekends at the Spokane Raceway Park, 60 miles from the Kalispel
reservation, is where it all happens. Boys and girls in Rodney J. Nomee's
Kalispel Racing program are there in the high whine of engines winding out
for all they're worth. Wearing fire suits and specially-approved helmets,
teens barrel down the raceway in cars with roll bars and a load of other
required safety features. Most of the time, Nomee is by their side, riding
The girls are there too. They race in the powder puff class against each
other, and are on the slower side - 14 seconds instead of down in the 12
second range where the boys tend to run. No matter, though, Nomee said one
girl won "King of the Hill" last year, a progressive race in which
handicaps are figured in. "She beat everybody. The idea is that it all
comes down to skill, and she won," Nomee said
It's the third year for the program, and it's Nomee's baby. A married man
and the father of four children, Nomee works as a mechanic for the Kalispel
Tribe. There he maintains the fleet vehicles among other duties and when he
wanted to start his program, he got the blessing of the tribal council.
"Basically it's kind of a shop class, and some of our kids who are in the
alternative school even get credit for it," he said. "Part of the reason we
started the program was to teach kids there's a place and a time to drive
fast. How to race safely, legally and responsibly. Not on the streets. We
had an accident on our reservation in 2002, and a couple of young men lost
their lives from driving too fast."
"We have two race cars owned by the tribe. One's an '86 Mustang LX. That's
our fast car, and the kids have to prove they can handle it before they're
allowed to drive it. One of the ways I have them show me is to drive my
gokart on ice. Racing is an inherently dangerous sport, and I just want to
make sure that should the unthinkable happen, like a flat tire, the kids
can handle the cars and bring them safely to a stop."
In order to get to race the kids have to put in at least 20 hours over the
winter learning how to work on the cars under Nomee's instruction. Parent
volunteers come in and help as well. "We rebuild the tribe's two cars every
year, and the kids do most of the work. They're involved in every step
except painting because that's pretty dangerous and toxic." Once they've
got the tribe's cars into shape, then the students can work on their own
cars. The group also raffled off a car this year.
Those who work less than 20 hours can still race, but they have to pay
their own freight. "For those that do put the time in I pay all their fees
and make sure they're fed and buy the fuel to get down there and back,"
Nomee said. "That way it keeps the other kids from showing up at the last
minute saying they want to race when the other kids have been working on
the cars all winter."
The program costs $7,000 to $8,000 a year to run. While the tribe funds the
group to some degree, last year Nomee and the kids raised just under $3,000
raffling off the car they rebuilt. They also helped out a car show the
Kalispel casino held and got half the proceeds - $1,300. "We do other
things too like maybe instead of buying a new part, if we know somebody who
has it we'll see if we can trade them something for it," Nomee said with a
chuckle. "Lots of bartering going on - old Indian bartering." Nomee takes
considerable pride in the car they raffled off that "only one new part was
used on the car. The rest was swap meet, yard sales, newspaper ads. And the
paint was donated by a local business."
Nomee was also pleased about the longer-term results of his efforts. "We
have one of our graduates going to Universal Technical Institute in
Arizona, and I like to think I had something to do with that. Hopefully
when he's done, he's going to get a job with a real professional race team.
And I have another kid and his dad told me he's pretty sure he's going into
some part of the automotive field."
Twelve kids. Twenty hours in the shop. More than 100 miles per hour in less
than 15 seconds.
Nomee's equation is all over the map. Work ethic. Marketable skills. An
adrenalin rush that knocks your socks off and the potential to change lives
over the long term.