In March, The Aspen Institute released Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Develop Every Student Through Sports. The 40-page document from the organization behind Project Play offers eight strategies to help school principals and other leaders update the traditional sports model. One of those strategies is “Introduce other forms of play.”
It’s an idea the National Federation of State High School Associations embraces.
“While we are cautiously optimistic that activity levels are on the rise again, we recognize ‘normal’ may need to be redefined to meet the needs of all students who are interested in high school activity programs,” Karissa Niehoff, chief executive officer of the NFHS, recently wrote in her weekly “NFHS Voice” column. “Offering new sport opportunities is already in motion in many states. The 2018-19 [high school athletics participation] survey indicated participation by high school students in 70 different sports, as well as 14 adapted sports for students with disabilities.”
While Niehoff mentioned such nontraditional sports as bowling, weightlifting, badminton, flag football and archery, she could be adding another activity in the coming years: auto racing.
That’s right. The Melrose-Mindoro School Board in western Wisconsin is the first school in Wisconsin — and perhaps among the first in the country — to offer auto racing as a varsity letter sport for students.
The move comes fewer than two years after the creation of the High School Racing Association (HSRA), a combined effort between La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway in West Salem, Wis., and Madison International Speedway in Oregon, Wis., that features high school-aged drivers in competition throughout the summer race season.
Tomah-Sparta Speedway in Wisconsin and Dells Raceway Park in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., also have been named HSRA-sanctioned tracks.
“This is a huge a step forward for the High School Racing Association series,” HSRA Director Jonathan Eckelberg said in a statement regarding Melrose-Mindoro. “The racetracks currently participating in HSRA are eager to grow the sport by getting young talent interested and involved. I am having many conversations with local high schools and hope other districts will see the value in allowing their student race car drivers to letter, as well.”
For students competing in the HSRA division to have the opportunity to receive a varsity letter, they must be in good academic standing, race in a minimum of four HSRA events at an HSRA-sanctioned racetrack and always show good sportsmanship. The association’s goal, according to Eckelberg, is to provide high school students with an economical way to enter stock car racing and keep younger generations interested in the sport.
“I would like to encourage other schools in the area, who have students in the HSRA racing division, to reach out to me if they would like more information on how to get racing as a letterable sport,” Heather Young, athletic director for the Melrose-Mindoro Area School District offered in a statement.
The upstart HSRA features American-made six-cylinder sedans with various safety enhancements. The driver’s high school colors and mascot must be incorporated into the paint scheme of the car’s roof, and students in grades nine through 12 (as well as graduating seniors) between the ages of 14 and 19 are eligible.
The association “gives teenagers a fun and inexpensive way to become involved in auto racing,” according to Chuck Deery, co-founder ofHSRA and a former Racing Promotion Monthly’s “Auto Racing Promoter of the Year,” adding that HSRA would like to add tracks across North America and crown champions in each participating state. “The number of youths involved in Esports such as iRacing is tremendous, [and] this is a way to get them further involved in the sport they love.”
“HSRA is about getting new faces, new kids, new families involved in the sport,” Eckelberg told the La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune. “Not all students want to throw a ball or run. Some of them are mechanically inclined or are interested in the automotive industry or are, at the very least, interested in racing cars. HSRA gives them a safe place to do that.”
The association might also attract student-athletes who currently participate in other high school sports. Kids like Jackson Macenko, a four-year lacrosse player and current team captain for Elder High School in Cincinnati who also races “midget” cars — small, lightweight open-wheel vehicles powered by a motorcycle engine. Macenko’s car is purple and white, Elder’s school colors.
In December, Macenko beat three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart in a midget series qualifier at Indiana’s Rumble in Fort Wayne and went on to finish second overall (just behind Stewart).
“Lacrosse is so quick,” Elder lacrosse coach Tim Gruber told WCPO.com. “Things can change in seconds. Everything is a gray scenario rather than black and white. And racing would be the same thing. You have to make decisions in splits of a second.”
Regardless of the students HSRA attracts, the mission remains the same as it is for the NFHS.
“We know from surveys conducted in 2020 that when sports and other activities were put on hold during the pandemic, large numbers of students suffered from depression and anxiety, and there were increased numbers of suicide reported by some states,” Niehoff wrote. “The ultimate goal is to involve as many students as possible in high school sports and other activity programs, or other school-based activities that promote growth and development and better prepare students for life after high school graduation.”