NASCAR racer Geoff Bodine couldn't make it to Fort Mill. He was in Texas Friday when he was scheduled to speak at Fort Mill Academy, but that didn't stop him from inspiring the school's students.
"Hello everybody," Bodine greeted via speaker phone during the annual Career Day program at Fort Mill's alternative school.
"Got any race fans down there?" he asked. "Any Dale Earnhardt fans?"
"Yeah!" a lone student hollered, prompting laughter.
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"Any Geoff Bodine fans?" Bodine next asked.
"Yeah!" more of the class bellowed.
"Now, we can continue," Bodine quipped.
Then the banter between the racer and nearly 50 students turned serious as he encouraged them to consider their decisions.
"Try to make the right choices in life," he said. "A lot of things out there are the wrong choices...make the right choices and understand how important it is to make the right choice. If you get involved in the wrong thing, that situation owns you."
Fort Mill Academy's second annual Career Day was a proactive effort to get students focused on their future, Principal Marty Conner said.
"We do this to expose our students to a variety of career opportunities with the desire that students will be able to understand what skills are needed in those professions as well as how important education is."
In addition to NASCAR racing, professions ranged from insurance, business and technology to the media, cosmetology and various higher level educational institutions. The event left its mark on students Heather Blackmon and Gizelle Santana.
"It got me to thinking that school is the basics for everything," Santana, a 15-year-old freshman, said. "All of the people who were here have a good career and had to go to school. In order for me to make something of myself, I have to go to school."
Blackmon also favored the event.
"It was a lot of fun and a learning experience," Blackmon, 17, a junior said. "I learned a lot about cosmetology."
Both students were impressed with former NASCAR drivers Tim Leeming and Jeff Gilder as well as Rob Amos owner of Hammerhead Cleaning Frenzy. Amos' waxing product, Geoff Bodine Waxing Frenzy, is used on race cars and bobsleds alike.
"I was like you," Amos, who works with Bodine, said of his single parent upbringing. "We grew up on welfare. A lot of my school friends didn't want to associate with me. It was taboo. I was pretty much an outcast."
But Amos refused to let others shape his future.
"I came to a crossroads," he said. "I could be what they (the students) said about me or I could be what I wanted to be."
So, Amos got involved with school activities and took on a newspaper route, gaining sage advice from some of his customers. And he never neglected school.
"One of the most important things you can do is finish school," he said. "Get that diploma. Education is key."
Former NASCAR driver Leeming talked about several teens, including a 13-year-old, who couldn't read and was placed in a children's home.
"He decided, 'It's all on me. It's my choice about what I'm going to do,'" Leeming said of the student, who learned to read. "This kid went through school with enough of a grade average to get a scholarship."
That same student finished his first year of law school in the top of his class, Leeming said.
"He believed in himself," Leeming said of the student.
Sometimes, believing is all it takes to blaze one's path to success, he said.
"My saving grace was a fifth grade teacher, Ms. Wilson," Leeming said. "I had somebody who believed in me."
Jeff Gilder, also a former NASCAR driver, told students that his life is marked with business successes and failures.
"When I look back over my life, the things that worked where when I sat down and made goals," he said. "Decide what you want to do, make that your goal, focus on it and don't let any obstacle get in your way."
Students were given Gilder's business card on which they inked out a goal, part of Gilder's 30-day challenge.
"Write down one thing that you want," he said. "Carry that card with you everyday so you can pull it out and look at it. See yourself as the person you want to be. Know that it can happen. Do not give up."
For Santana, Amos' words lingered.
"The fact that he came from basically nothing and made it is really amazing," Santana said. "He has his own business."
Blackmon also took stock in Amos' message.
"It was interesting to hear how he went from the bottom to the top," she said.