Addressing a group of sixth-graders, Friday afternoon, at Willow Springs Elementary, professional race-car driver Howard Liebengood said, "We're all racing through life together." Then, to the students' surprise, he detailed the similarities they share with him.
"Racing is fun and exciting, but it can also be dangerous," he said. "And just like with students' lives, it can be filled with risks."
Liebengood, 33, of Vienna, has been racing 10 years. Driving a BMW, he and his teammates do endurance racing — driving cars for three to 24 hours straight. On behalf of his sponsors, Pennzoil and the National Campaign to Stop Violence, he presents a youth motivational program called "Racing to Live by the Rules."
It shows how auto racing mirrors the risks in life and the importance, therefore, of making careful lifestyle choices. On Friday, Liebengood spoke to Willow Springs' STAR (Students are Responsible) Club, which promotes community service and positive self-image.
When introducing him, Assistant Principal Larry Burke told the children that the choices people make affect them both now and in the future. And Liebengood stressed the value of obeying laws and rules.
The students participated in his talk, eagerly answering questions he posed to them. For example, he had them tell him the safety preparations he should make before driving his race car. They included wearing his seatbelt, helmet and safety equipment and checking out his car for mechanical problems before taking off.
"Just like students coming to school, we want to be prepared," said Liebengood. "I don't want to do anything to put myself or my fellow competitors in harm's way because, off the track, they're my friends. I also need to stay focused and pay attention, just like you do in class."
Then, to illustrate his point, he selected sixth-grader Travis Ross, 11, to dress up in his racing gear (although he didn't make Travis first put on fireproof underwear, like he wears). Showing his helmet, he said the radio in it helps him keep in communication with his pit crew, "just like you [students] need to tell a teacher if you see another student doing something unsafe. In both racing and life, you have to play by the rules."
Liebengood then explained the meanings of the different flags waved at drivers during a race and how they have parallels in everyday life. He said the green flag means "go" and that students' races start when they set goals. He then asked the children to name some goals, and they responded with: Improving their education, reading and striving to get good grades. And he told them they have to work at these goals every day to achieve them.
Noting that the yellow flag means "caution, potential danger ahead," Liebengood said such flags are everywhere in life. He said they're represented by drugs, weapons, becoming violent, doing poorly in school and "giving in to peer pressure to do something you shouldn't do."
A blue flag with yellow, diagonal strips means "move over, get out of the way," so the faster cars may pass. Similarly, in life, said Liebengood, "You want to mind your manners and be considerate of others. Treat people with as much respect as, hopefully, they'd treat you."
A black flag means "stop for consultation in pit area — there's a problem." For example, said Liebengood, "If we have a friend doing something bad or destructive, we need to stop them and have somebody — a teacher or parent — talk to them."
He said a red flag means "stop immediately on the track." In everyday life, he said, "We never want to become violent, use drugs or alcohol, threaten anyone, [succumb to] peer pressure, join gangs or bring weapons to school."
The white flag means "last lap coming up." Said Liebengood: "That's when we need to stay focused — one mistake or bad choice can ruin our lifetime race forever." He then told about University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias and the one bad choice he made in 1985.
"On the day he was selected to become a Boston Celtic, he tried drugs for the first time ever, had a heart attack and died," said Liebengood. "So as students, we need to be aware of the choices we make and stay focused."
Next came the checkered flag, symbolizing the end of the race. "Always be striving to achieve your checkered flag in life and, after you've achieved your goals, set others," said Liebengood. Then, to reinforce the message, he presented the school with its own checkered flag.
Afterward, Travis Ross said the racing suit was "kinda heavy" and the helmet kept slipping down, but "it was fun to dress up like a race car driver. Dorothy Vu, 11, liked learning about Liebengood's job and about "different choices." Lianna Foster-Bey, 12, said if students remain focused, "they'll be able to do their work, even if something bad happens."
Brian Yonish, 11, "liked it when Travis put on the racing suit, because he looked kinda funny in it. I think it would be neat just to drive a car that fast." Chelsea Guill, 11, liked learning "what [race-car drivers] wear so they're protected," but Tashi Prioleau, 12, said she'd rather be a basketball player than a racer because "it's too much pain."
Sheila Faalasli, 11, learned "to not take drugs so you won't mess up your life and you'll have a better future." To do so, advised Sarah Capp, 12, "You have to keep your eyes on the road." She'd like to be a racer, but noted that "I'd have to get older first." Chris Battle, 11, said, "You should be ready for changes in your life," and Katie Pugh, 11, warned students to "stay away from peer pressure."
Ahmad Elhajj, 11, said Liebengood's talk "motivates little kids so they can learn more and get used to the way they should live." And Eric Lesher, 11, said the goal-setting part inspired him to "get better grades so I can get a good job when I grow up." Andy Noviello, 11, said he'd like to race cars, but "it's too dangerous."
Zach Underhill, 11, learned the importance of being safe and not using drugs. And Pamela Mazmanian, 11, said students "don't usually get to speak to a real person who drives a car in races. That was cool — he could come to any school, but he came to ours."