By Erin Delmore
When you think of a church group activity, you probably don’t think of this.
On Sundays, Trenton’s Living Hope Church is dedicated to worship. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it’s home to a racing school.
“Any other sport, stick and a ball sport, practicing is something you can just do, with very little or no expense. Motor racing, every single lap costs a lot of money. And so it’s really hard to promote motor racing because of that,” said Steve Erickson.
It all started back in 2007, with the inspiration of an Indy 500 photographer and Living Hope parishioner.
“A friend of mine, Joe Wisniewski, was driving down one of the local roads here in Trenton and saw a billboard sign with a police officer putting handcuffs on young people and the billboard sign read, ‘If you don’t watch your kids, we will.’ Well, it infuriated him because it made it sound like all the kids here in the city of Trenton are nothing but bad news,” said Living Hope Racing School Race Director Bob Danka.
Joe passed away not long after. His friends and church community started the program in his memory, under the church’s nonprofit, the Living Hope Empowerment Center.
“Part of it is the racing school we started to really get kids involved in mechanics, racing, teamwork and really teach life skills, and provide a possible venue for professional future in science, math,” said Pastor Julio Guzman.
The team competes in around 15 races per year, from March or April through the middle of November. They travel throughout the state, plus Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Maryland. Some are full-team races with driver changes and pit stops. Others are endurance races that can last more than four hours.
“It’s a rush. Like, the wind in your face, and like, it’s a little nerve-racking because you’re trying to like, be better every single time, so like, all you gotta do is like, hope you learn a little bit more every time,” said 13-year-old Emily Rodriguez.
“I want to be a mechanic and be a drag racer and make my own team,” said Jerry Mercado.
Program Director Danka raced with 15-year-old Ari Schanz’s father. Schanz is a team leader. That means he teaches some of the younger kids while Danka works with the others. It also means he gets his name printed on this sweet go-kart.
“Well it’s great to have someone look up to me, and it’s a great way to keep myself in check and always make sure that I’m the example that they can follow. I can be their role model and they can be where I am in five years,” Schanz said.
From a future in racing to mechanics to engineering, Danka says his program keeps kids on the right track.
“One of the things I’m most proud about is eight kids that have been previously part of this race school have gone off to college or technical school that weren’t planning on heading to college or technical school because the base thing that we push here is education,” Danka said.
Right now, the program is at capacity with 10 students, a number that Danka says he’d love to see grow as he builds the program up.