Army recruiters might follow young people to hot rod races

Difficulty fulfilling quotas stimulates partnership approach

February 05, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Frustrated in its efforts to meet recruiting goals, the U.S. Army may try to entice America's youth through a new partner: the hot rod.

Top Army officials are considering teaming up with the National Hot Rod Association, which for the past decade has drawn tens of thousands of young people to education and job fairs at its dragster and funny car races around the nation.

The preliminary proposal, which has yet to be approved by the Army's leadership, calls for the Army to advertise on a dragster, provide a high-tech trailer for recruiters and offer free Internet access and a Web site where teens can follow the Army's racing team.

"Anything that gives us access to kids in a controlled environment has to be good," said Assistant Army Secretary P. T. Henry, who met in December with other top Army officials, sports promoters and advertisers to discuss the plan. "The Hot Rod Association talks about speed, safety, attention to detail, about precision, about commitment. All those things are good Army values."

Like the other services, the Army has been struggling for years with recruiting problems, a situation made even worse by the robust economy, which has made civilian jobs plentiful. Last year the Army missed its 74,500-soldier recruiting goal by 6,290 but was able to maintain its ranks at roughly 480,000 because more stayed within the service than anticipated.

"We're in a very competitive labor market," Army Secretary Louis Caldera said yesterday.

The Army announced plans Thursday to try to recruit more than 6,000 young people each year who have dropped out of high school but who score high enough on Army tests and obtain a General Educational Development (GED) diploma. Another program would allow up to 2,000 men and women to enlist and then attend up to two years of college before serving in the Army.

By linking up with the Hot Rod Association, Army officials hope to reach a larger market than by their current, conventional efforts, such as visiting high schools or making unsolicited calls to potential recruits.

During a racing season that runs from February through November, the Hot Rod Association holds 24 races in 17 states. Tens of thousands of fans attend each event, said association officials.

"They hit the kids, the 18- to 24-year-olds, but they also hit the influencing market, the parents, who we are woefully remiss in getting to," said Henry, the assistant Army secretary. "I think there's a possibility here if the Army signs on. We've never taken on a venture like this."

A formal proposal for the Army-NHRA deal is expected to reach Army officials next week, said Brad Amster, president of Team USA Enterprises, an Arlington, Va., sports marketing company involved in the planning.

Amster said he envisions the Army advertising on a top-fuel dragster -- perhaps with an American eagle or stars-and-stripes design -- that would be driven by Bruce Penhall, a former national motorcycle champion and offshore boat champion, who also appeared in the final year of the TV show "CHiPs."

An interactive trailer, which would fold out to an 80-by-80-foot footprint, would offer videos and simulators, while nearby would be Humvees and possibly weaponry such as the Apache helicopter. The entire package could cost $10 million to $20 million, Amster said, and would include national TV advertising and billboards, along with payments to the NHRA.

Last year, Amster brought Army recruiters to hot rod races in Texas and Ohio to provide a dry run of the proposal. At the Houston Grand Prix in August, Sgt. 1st Class Nelson Roman, commander of a Houston recruiting station, was among those who attended and brought along a Humvee with a grenade launcher and a military police unit.

"We got a lot of people interested in talking to us. I think it was very positive," said Roman, who estimated they talked with 20 to 30 teens about the Army -- more than twice the number they would reach at the recruiting station -- and have several ready to sign up.

Roman said he was also able to talk about the Army with parents, who don't generally discuss a military career with their sons and daughters.

With the latest and more ambitious proposal, the Army would join in the Hot Rod Association's youth in education program, started in 1989 as a way to keep teens in school and encourage careers in the automotive industry, from marketing to mechanics.

Ken Pyle, the Hot Rod Association's director of youth and eduction services, said the first youth effort was held at the Pomona, Calif., racetrack in 1989 and attracted 700 students from 40 local schools. The one held last fall brought in 4,200 students from 200 area schools.

Army officials are hopeful that those students who do not want to don coveralls and enter the automotive industry might be willing to put on Army camouflage.

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