For a weekend last year, wheels replaced hooves when it came to the horsepower that gathered at the Darby Rodeo Grounds.
Competitors, ranging in age from 4 to 60, displayed their skills navigating a barrel racing course in motorcycles, ATVs and side-by-sides at high speed last September. Hundreds turned out to watch the dirt fly.
That inaugural event brought in about $5,000 that was divided between the Darby High School fledgling shop program and the community’s volunteer fire department’s cadet program.
The $2,500 was enough to create a new program at the Darby school that’s opening up a whole new world to a group of mechanically inclined teens.
Sean Jackson, the organizer of last year’s Moto Round Up, used the funding to purchase four Predator small engines that became the centerpiece of a once-a-week class in small engine theory.
“They’ve torn the engines apart and rebuilt them as race motors,” Jackson said. “They have learned to do it all themselves. They increased the horsepower by two times, if not three … The point of the class was teach them about four-stroke engine theory. I wanted them to understand how it works and how to make it better.”
Jackson spent his career in racing everything from motorcycles to sprint cars before retiring to Darby.
He now volunteers to teach the small-engine course Friday mornings during a period that’s normally set aside for students to make up any school work they might have fallen behind in during the week.
Last Friday, Darby High junior Andrew Seitz and freshman Brandon Schmidt were there early tinkering on one of the engines that was in pieces on the shop bench. Both said they haven’t had trouble keeping up with the schoolwork this year. They don’t want to miss one of Jackson’s classes.
“I’ve never done anything quite like this,” Seitz said. “I used to help my dad when he worked on the car. We would take stuff apart and put it back together and figure out how it ticks.”
But the information that Jackson offered was on a whole new level.
Jackson said it’s just the beginning.
He hopes next year to find a group of dedicated young mechanics willing to work hard enough to earn a spot in a national competition called Hot Rodders of Tomorrow. The competition that started in 2008 requires teams of five high school students to tear down and reassemble a Chevy 350 engine without power tools.
The best can do it in 20 minutes or less.
If the Darby team can get good enough to qualify for a chance to compete on a national level, each team member will be awarded a $5,000 scholarship. If they can win, each one will earn a $40,000 scholarship.
In Jackson’s mind, there’s no reason that a team from Darby can’t make it to the top.
“We just have to find the right group ready to dedicate their time,” he said.
And they need to raise enough money to purchase an engine so they can practice.
Drawing on the success of last fall’s Moto Round Up, Jackson and others in Darby now plan to host five motor racing events this year at the Darby Rodeo Grounds. Starting on the weekend of May 4-5, motorized barrel racing will return once a month through September.
Awards will be presented for the different classes at each event. Winners with the most points in each class at the end of the season will be crowned “Baddest in the Bitterroot.”
The proceeds will again be split between the school’s shop and firefighter’s cadet programs.
Jackson and his students plan to install their upgraded Predator engines in vehicles that will be used for racing.
“I’ve had a great life that’s revolved around racing,” Jackson said. “This is my way of paying it forward … A long time ago, I was in the exact position as many of these kids until a guy got hold of me and pulled me into his auto shop. He showed me some things that I could do and that eventually led me into racing. I was able to make a living out of it.”
The skills that young people can learn in a class like this can change the trajectory of their lives.
“It’s like my grandpa used to say: ‘You might as well try to fix it,’” Jackson said. “’Even if you can’t fix it, you’re probably going to learn just by trying.'
"Once I learned how to fix things, I never had a problem finding work. Once you have that want to fix things and help people, it changes you. I don’t think you ever run out of the want.”
Schmidt nods his head knowingly.
“It makes me feel good when I can fix things for people,” said the ninth grader. “It puts a smile on my face.”
This year’s races will be held May 4-5; June 15-16; July 20-21; August 17-18; and Sept. 21-22. Anyone seeking additional information can call Jackson at 408-489-9432.