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A U-M professor and a street drag racer's plan to get inner city kids in auto careers

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 A U-M professor and a street drag racer's plan to get inner city kids in auto careers

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Shirl Donaldson is a self-described "car girl," but it took getting COVID-19 in 2021 for this assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Flint to discover her true calling. At home sick, she was binge-watching TV when her partner, a retired mechanic, turned on Donkmaster on Vice. The show features Sage Thomas, aka Donkmaster, drag racing challengers in his self-built classic cars known as "donks." "I was like ‘What is this?’ " Donaldson said.

"You watch the first episode, the second and next thing I know …the wheels started turning in my head. The mechanics talk about the cars and how to improve performance, but they didn’t use the terms we’d use in a classroom like aerodynamics or retrofit and typical terms. But it was clear they understood the concepts." Thomas has drag raced his donks all over the country — including at Milan Dragway in Michigan — winning over $1 million over some 20 years.

His show is full of smack talk, bets and running the souped-up classic cars with huge wheels at 175 mph to cover a quarter mile in eight seconds. The kids love it, especially minority kids because it is accessible and affordable at about $25 at the gate and free parking, Donaldson said. Donaldson, who teaches industrial technology at U-M's College of Innovation and Technology, saw an opportunity to team up with Thomas and use his celebrity, along with the rising popularity of donk racing to get minority kids interested in studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for careers in automotive. “I want to get kids to draw the connection between, if you like this, then you like math and science.

I want them to be proficient in STEM so that they have as many options as possible," Donaldson said. "What makes that car go faster? That’s science. Why does someone else's tires fly off and Donkmaster’s stay on? That’s science. So maybe these kids will say, ‘Let’s take a physics class.’ We need more engineers, we need more scientists — this opens the door to all of that.” What is a donk? A donk is street slang for 1971-76 Chevrolet Impala or Chevrolet Caprice cars with aftermarket wheels that are 22 inches or bigger.

Just how the cars got dubbed "donks" is unclear. Some say it hails from the Impala logo, which looks like a donkey. Others say when the rear end is raised up and bouncing, it looks like a donkey kicking. Thomas has said it is because you act like a donkey once you're in the car cruising around. Regardless, racing donks has largely been an underground phenomenon centered in the South.

But with the Donkmaster show and other venues outside the South hosting it, it is becoming more well known. Thomas also told the Free Press that donks have expanded beyond the traditional Impala and Caprice cars. The National Donk Racing Association circuit now folds in other classic cars with big wheels into donk racing. "The Donk Class, which is a 1971 to 1976 Caprice and Impala, the G-Body class is '78 to '88 (Oldsmobile) Cutlass, (Chevrolet) Monte Carlo, (Chevrolet) Malibu, (Pontiac) Grand Prix and (General Motors) G-Body and we have an Open Class, which is any car that is not in those other two classes," Thomas said. Who's the Donkmaster? Thomas, 40, was born in Savannah, Georgia.

His mom was a schoolteacher and his dad a chef. But he spent his childhood in the shadow of his Uncle Buggy, who taught him to work on cars and love motor sports. “Growing up we didn’t have much money so he’d let us go through a junkyard and get whatever we wanted," Thomas said. "But we had to then fix it." At age 8, Thomas and his older cousins would bring all the junkyard parts back to the shop and build go-karts, ride them and then sell them, trying to earn enough money to buy a car some day.

By age 16, Thomas started building his first donk, he said. At age 17, he bought his first regular car: A 1974 Chevy Nova, which he rebuilt and still owns. He got into donk racing at age 20 after seeing a DVD on East Coast Riders, a group that would put big wheels on the back of their donks to drag race.

But Thomas wanted to have the same size wheels on the front and the back of his donks and that’s "what garnered me to be the master of this because no one else was doing that." Building donks for the stars His favorite donk is a 1971 Chevy Impala because, “I just love the look of it and this particular car helped me prepare my business — so all my other cars came because I built this Chevy Impala.” He now builds donks for rappers, professional athletes, actors and more at his shop, In & Out Customs, in North Charleston, South Carolina. "We do restorations, engine swaps, wiring and brakes and suspensions — all in-house," Thomas said.

"You want a donk? It’ll be $75,000 to $150,000." He just built a 1973 Caprice donk using a new Corvette LS 6-liter engine in it to promote the Netflix movie "They Cloned Tyrone," which features donks in the movie. That car is worth $150,000, he said. “Anytime a donk is seen on television, people will want to do a deep dive on Google to see what a donk is," Thomas said. 'Applied engineering in action' Donaldson also grew up in a car culture.

Her father was a millwright, which is a skilled tradesperson who works on machines, at Chrysler for 38 years. Her late husband ran a tool and die shop where she worked. When she got into academia, she did her doctorate on minorities being underrepresented in technology. "So when I saw Donkmaster and what he was doing and being around engineering and cars my whole life, I thought there’s a lot of applied STEM here that is not being recognized," Donaldson said. For example, the concept of taking weight out of the car, but keeping the performance.

The donk team had knowledge of material science, too, based on the tires they used, she said. But they spoke about it in a way street kids could understand. "When I looked at the crowd, it was a heavy minority population," Donaldson said. “I wondered if they recognized they were watching applied engineering in action? They were seeing STEM education.” So in March 2022 almost a year after first seeing Donkmaster's show, Donaldson told the U-M Flint campus director of research that she wanted to go to donk races and interview the mechanics and the fans. "(The mechanics) are doing some real creative stuff to make these cars go that fast and perform.

How did they learn this?" Donaldson said. "I really wanted to understand from the kids there, what were their interests and what could they glean out of this that they could use in their future careers?” Donkmaster is the drawing card So Donaldson created a 20-question survey with the intention of asking such questions to donk racers and attendees. In May 2022 she reached out to Thomas on Instagram, telling him, “what you’re doing is more important than you think.

It can impact so much more in STEM education and future generations. Your story needs to be told." He responded and arranged for her to come to her first race in June 2022 at Piedmont Dragway in Julian, North Carolina, about 16 miles southeast of Greensboro. To entice the kids to spend the 10 minutes to take her survey, she handed out a T-shirt with a 1953 Corvette on it.

The 1953 was the first year of the Corvette, which was the first sports car to be built in America and it was made in Flint. She has gone to five races last year and three this year, completing about 300 surveys from people ages 10 to 65. She surveyed some adults, too, to see what their favorite school subjects were and whether it correlated to their careers. "When I’m on-site and have a race, he will make an announcement urging the kids to take the survey and he will autograph the T-shirt, so if Donkmaster says to do it, they do it," Donaldson said. Donaldson plans to gather enough data in the next 12 to 24 months to find a sponsor for workshops at venues where Donkmaster races because "he's the drawing card." The workshops will be free to the kids there to teach them about STEM education and careers in automotive. "He’s got lots of followers here in Michigan," Donaldson said.

"You see those types of vehicles here, you just don’t see that many scheduled races here and that’s something I’d like to see ... and the workshops here too." Using 'street science' to resonate with kids Beyond the surveys, Donaldson also brings her U-M engineering students to Thomas, sometimes in person and sometimes via Zoom, to learn from him. "He puts in special axles to go that kind of speed so some of the things he does are engineering anomalies," Donaldson said.

"But if this attracts young people to get them to study math and science and open up their minds to that, it’s huge.” Thomas said he was last in Michigan at Milan Dragway in 2021 and had a good turnout of 5,000 to 7,000 people. His popularity here has risen thanks to Donaldson, he said. Thomas and Donaldson talk regularly to brainstorm ideas to keep kids intrigued in STEM.

He also visits schools in South Carolina. "When I was coming up, I didn’t know anything about STEM or anybody wanting to help an inner city kid," Thomas said. "I would rather put something in my hands and feel it and learn it that way. So I like the way she does it." Also, his ties to the education community is making donk racing more mainstream, Thomas said, adding, "In most racing there’s not much diversity to it and by me being part of it, it’s bringing more diversity.” Donaldson dubs the informal learning "street science" saying it makes STEM more relevant to kids of color and offers up opportunities in auto careers.

For example, a kid may not want to race, but may want to design wheels. "If it was something they liked or they could relate to, they’d have more interest in STEM," Donaldson said. "If they like racing, what are their favorite subjects in schools? This attracts a lot of the kids we need to connect to between ages of 11-15 to get into STEM." To follow Donkmaster, go to YouTube channel Donkmaster TV. More:He owns one of the largest Corvette collections.

Here's a peek behind the locked door More:Details emerge on the cause of a violent crash with a Corvette at GM Proving Ground Contact Jamie L. LaReau: Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter. Become a subscriber.

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