When students arrive at school and the first thing they see is a 30-foot long top-fuel dragster parked near the front entrance, they know their education has just moved into high gear.
This 5,000 horsepower dragster that goes to school has been seen up close by over 150,000 students at more than 400 schools across nine states. It is an authentic race car that still competes, and has hit speeds of 285 miles per hour in a quarter-mile sprint.
When it is not racing, the dragster is a hands-on teaching tool developed by owner and driver, Sam Parton, of Grove, Oklahoma, a veteran schoolteacher whose driving desire is to engage students’ minds by demonstrating how every subject they study in school is put to use in real-life work and business, even drag racing.
Parton and his staff use the car to show students firsthand how their present classroom education is vital to realizing their dreams for the future. With the dragster, he brings to life math, science, and chemistry, along with every other subject they are studying, as he points out in the dragster just how much classroom education is put to practical use.
He has named his unique educational company Team Thunder, and it rolls across the Mid South with an upbeat message for young people to stay in school and learn all they can as the only way to realize their dreams.
Parton’s classroom dragster is an authentic 10-year old racing car built by Owen Johnston of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The body is made of aluminum with a frame of chrome moly aircraft steel tubing. The engine is a Keith Black block with Allen Johnson heads.
The car has a 300-inch wheel base and weighs 2,200 pounds with the driver in it. For fuel, it burns a mixture of 80 percent nitro methane and 20 percent methanol. While most cars may have a fuel line no more than 3/8 inch in diameter, Team Thunder’s dragster feeds fuel through a line 2-1/2 inches in diameter.
Not exactly the car you want to drive around town, it burns 10 gallons of fuel every time it makes the quarter-mile run…at $25 a gallon. “In a weekend, I will spend $1,000 on fuel and about $1,300 on tires,” Parton said. “I have to replace my tires after four times down the quarter-mile track.”
Definitely not for the faint of heart, dragsters are the fastest accelerating vehicles on land. This one hits 100 miles per hour just one second from a dead stop, and it has covered the quarter-mile in 5.35 seconds. “You need to be focused, and you need to believe in your abilities,” Parton said. “Obviously, you also need to be dedicated to details as far as making the car mechanically safe to run down the track.”
And it is in those all-important details that Parton and his team prove the value of a good education in a way students will never forget. When asked how much education a person should have to race a car, Parton tells kids, “…as much as you can get. It would be great if you had your bachelors of science, masters, and then your doctorate degree.”
Parton himself is an object lesson in the value of education, both formal and on-the-job. His father owned a dirt construction company, so he grew up familiar with bulldozers, dump trucks, road graders, dams, and bridges.
He has owned rental property, a trailer park, and a manufacturing company that made fasteners for the auto industry. He has been both a janitor who cleaned restrooms and a corporate president, a bus driver and a mechanic, a pilot and a race car driver, a land developer and a school teacher. He has taught social studies, English, history, careers, and aeronautics.
“I have done many, many things. I feel that gives me a great perspective on life,” he said. “I did a development on Grand Lake and saw all the trash on the road and the right-of-way being neglected. So I took it on myself to mow several miles of right-of-way in my development and on the county road,” and that’s what got him into a New Holland tractor. His New Holland dealer also became his friend and advisor on tractors and mowers.
Team Thunder actually had its start while Parton was a school- teacher. When he saw his students with their heads buried in books, he asked them why they were studying so hard. One young man replied that they were studying for a test. “I knew right then the kids didn’t understand why they were in school. Children should be in school to prepare themselves for the real world, not just to pass the next test,” he said.
Parton called a friend, Jerry Porter, and told him how students were learning their X, Ys, and Zs, but had no idea why. Porter, himself a teacher for 38 years, reminded Parton that he was already in possession of the longest, loudest visual aid a teacher would need to answer the age-old student complaint, “Why do I have to take this stuff? I’ll never use it.” With that, Team Thunder was born and went to school.
When Team Thunder goes to a school, the staff and car are usually there for the entire day, and the race car becomes the classroom exhibit, and no one fidgets or falls asleep. But before they see the car up close, the entire student body gathers in an auditorium for a motivational presentation that touches on “Say no to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco,” “Don’t be a bully,” and “Believe in your dreams and yourself, be prepared for life.”
During much of the day Team Thunder takes over that school’s teaching responsibilities, working with mid school and high school students to apply technology, science, and math to real world projects, such as the dragster. This involves field trips out to the car where students see first-hand how their education is used in something bigger than life.
In addition to the obvious math and science that goes into building and running a top fuel dragster, the program incorporates finance, careers, and communications as Team Thunder reinforces its basic concept of making dreams come true with an education, a good plan, and personal effort.
While older students are experiencing the more technical aspects of a race car, students in pre-kindergarten to sixth grade crowd around the car for their own 20-minute program that is sure to be repeated in their homes that evening.
Sam Parton is able to relate to students in a unique way. He was once a young man without direction…“a high school graduate without a map,” as he puts it. He considered the military, but at his mother’s urging went to college. That lasted one year before he took a semester off, then enrolled in another college. This was followed by jobs in a discount variety store and insurance before working for his father for a few years.
Parton says the turning point in his life came when his father died unexpectedly, and he suddenly found himself president of his father’s company. “It forced me to grow up and figure out which direction I was going to go.”
He talked to his teacher friend Jerry Porter who encouraged him to become a teacher. So he landed a job at Grove High School and taught there for 15 years. During that time he and Porter were also racing dragsters and had become involved in every aspect of that exciting world, except actual ownership of a racing car.
“Dragsters seemed to be in my blood, and I realized that a perfect dream for me would somehow include students and dragsters, which have given me a thrill ever since I was a student myself,” Parton said. So when a dragster became available at a good price, Parton decided he would go for it, but only if he could make it his business, not just a hobby.
Again, he called on a teacher friend, Harvey Dean, his own eighth grade shop teacher who left teaching to start a successful educational products company, widely known today as PITSCO. When asked to sponsor the top fuel dragster as an educational project that would actually go to schools, Dean loved the idea, and Team Thunder became a reality.
“I was on my way to a dream I probably had from the beginning,” Parton said. “I just didn’t realize it.”
Parton lives in Grove, Oklahoma with his wife Lisa and their two high school age children, MacKenzie and Curtis.
Today, with a dozen job experiences in his background, and a development project now in private home ownership, Sam Parton is still racing his dragster, but most of the time he and the dragster are at schools, taking their message to as many students as possible: “Stay in school and pursue your dreams, but have a plan for getting there.” And after 20 years, he is still driving a blue tractor and mowing the grass along Highway 59.
For more information about Team Thunder’s educational program see: www.team-thunder.org.