Every autumn in the south German town of Überacker, a group of 16 teenagers joins the Starthilfe program. For many, the social initiative, supported by BMW Motorrad, is the last chance to get their lives back on track. Established 11 years ago, it aims to help young people experiencing personal or social problems, such as drug addiction, to repeat their final school year exams, so they can find places on apprenticeships and embark on fulfilling careers.
The Starthilfe participants complete various practical team-building projects, which run alongside regular classroom sessions. By restoring a tractor or car, or helping to take care of a nearby nature reserve, for example, Starthilfe founder Peter Steger believes the teenagers can learn to work together and take responsibility for themselves — and also discover that learning can be fun.
One of the most popular and certainly unique opportunities provided by Starthilfe is the RACE Project. Coordinated by Peter and his colleagues, Ulrich Gottwald and Ekkehard Pfeifer, the project allows the teenagers to be part of a motorcycle racing team. From organizing the race season, searching for sponsors and catering, to working on the race bikes — two BMW S1000RR models — and writing reports for press and sponsors after the races, the participants can choose which area they would like to work in, depending on their individual talents and interests.
Since 2007, the RACE Project has taken part in the DMV Rundstrecken Championship, and finished first in 2009 and third in 2010. In addition to the two race bikes, BMW Motorrad provides test riders Bernd Papilion and Ralf Schwickerath to compete. The manufacturer also invited Starthilfe participants to Stephanskirchen, so they could meet the mechanics of the World Superbike team and ask them questions.
“We receive a great deal of support from the BMW marketing department, because they can see that our project takes good care of these young people. And, of course, with the new S1000RR, many people are aware of us,” says Ulrich.
Each race weekend is a demanding and challenging experience for the teenagers, who have to change tires and make changes to the bikes under pressure. With such responsibility, they have to consider that the consequences of making a mistake could alter the result of the race.
On the other hand, when one of the RACE Project riders stands on the podium, and gains another trophy for the collection at their workshop, it gives them a feeling of success they may never have experienced before. “Success on the track is often repeated in the classroom,” says Ulrich. “Until now, all those who have successfully completed the RACE Project have gained their school leaving qualification and almost all find a training place.”
For 21-year-old Bibo, the Starthilfe RACE Project has been an invaluable experience and helped open the door to a mechanics apprenticeship. After experiencing problems at home, he left school with no qualifications, which made it difficult for him to find work. “I initially wanted to be a paramedic, but without qualifications, it wasn’t possible to get a place on the training course. I went to the job center and was given two options: a vocational training year, or Starthilfe.”
During the last race season, Bibo was responsible for collecting the data and producing results tables with lap times, fuel requirements and other important information. He chose this job following the short introduction to motorcycle racing given at the Starthilfe workshop. “We learned how a bike is built, how the tire pressure is checked and the level of fuel for a race is estimated. As we are only a small group, you have the opportunity to ask questions for as long as it takes to understand how it works, which is brilliant.”
Not everyone who joins Starthilfe manages to complete the year, but students who have the motivation and desire to succeed receive all the help they need — even therapy, if required. “We work with the campaign: Keine Macht den Drogen [No one takes drugs] and can offer therapy if the students want it,” says Ulrich.
Above the RACE Project’s impressive trophy collection is a motto designed to motivate all the team’s participants: ‘beweg deinen Arsch’ (move your ass). In many ways, it epitomises the work that is done by Starthilfe: no-nonsense encouragement to get on in life, in a language that troubled teenagers can easily understand.