Here’s the rags-to-riches story and local connection of the generous gentleman from Arizona who donated back to the Jordan Vocational High School automotive program Team Red Jacket’s restored and customized 1996 Ford Mustang he bought for $65,000 last week during the Barrett-Jackson auction at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut:
Joe Riley was born in Barbour County, Ala., 70 years ago. He was sent to an orphanage in Troy, then moved to Columbus when his mother married a soldier stationed at Fort Benning.
From age 6-12, he lived in Peabody Apartments, a Columbus public housing complex. Thanks to the vocational training he received in high school after his family moved to Norfolk, Va., Riley learned a trade that empowered him to pull himself out of poverty. He became an iron worker, then worked in insurance and ended up selling cars. In 1981, he ventured into business on his own and founded the National Auto Mart, a buyer and seller of used corporate fleet vehicles in Phoenix.
Riley, now a millionaire living in Scottsdale, Ariz., hasn’t been back to the Chattahoochee Valley since his mother, Reba Herring, died 12 years ago, but he reconnected to Columbus by connecting with Team Red Jacket in Connecticut – hundreds of miles away from their homes.
As a longtime Barrett-Jackson customer, Riley enjoys going to the auctions and donating cars he buys to charity. But when he attended last week’s auction in Connecticut, he didn’t know about Team Red Jacket’s amazing journey until after he made the winning $65,000 bid.
“I didn’t realize it until after the auction,” Riley told the Ledger-Enquirer from his Arizona office in a phone interview Tuesday. “We bought the car and went to another stage, and that’s when I found out about Jordan.”
Team Red Jacket won the 2016 Quaker State “Best in Class Challenge” in December, prevailing among five finalists and 55 semifinalists in the six-week competition to restore and customize a classic Ford Mustang. As a result, their 1996 Mustang qualified for the Barrett-Jackson Auction in West Palm Beach, Fla., in April, when the buyer returned the car to Team Red Jacket and donated the $50,000 winning bid to Jordan’s automotive program after hearing the team’s inspiring story.
Riley said he is friends with fellow car dealer and collector John Staluppi, the buyer-turned-donor of the Jordan Mustang in Florida. But he wasn’t aware of Staluppi’s gesture until after he also donated the car back to Team Red Jacket.
“I talked to John after I bought the car,” Riley said. “He has the same feelings about those kids.”
Riley described those feelings and those kids.
“To see them coming together as a team and accomplishing what they accomplished by building this car and getting the award for first place, it just hit me in my heart,” Riley said. “What our society is lacking today, I think, it’s that we’re getting away from vocational training. These kids, I told them, you guys are on the right track. Not every child is destined to get a four-year college degree. Our trades, the carpenters, the electricians, the auto mechanics, they can make a great living and be a meaningful part of society. Then to see their enthusiastic and appreciative tone, that’s what motivated me to donate the car back to them.”
Riley has motivated Joseph Craigen, 17, a rising senior at Jordan and one of the 10 students on Team Red Jacket. In a phone interview Tuesday with the Ledger-Enquirer while taking a break from his summer job at Lube Pro Plus auto care on Veterans Parkway, Joseph said, “He told us about his upbringing and how he grew up, how he started from the very bottom and became a car dealership owner.
“It’s amazing. It shows you, if you put your heart into it, you can get to the top, and when you get to the top, you throw the rope down to help all the others below to get to the top.”
Joseph credits “God working in mysterious ways” for the convergence of circumstances bringing Riley and Team Red Jacket together. Riley also remarked about the serendipity of him buying this car from this automotive program from this town.
“It’s Karma,” he said. “It was very exciting. … A lot of these kids are underprivileged like I was. I tried to give them motivation by telling them to strike the word ‘can’t’ from their vocabulary. God gave you the greatest asset, your brain, and nobody can affect that unless you allow them. Set goals and believe in yourself. These kids just impressed me so much with their manners.”
And their craftsmanship.
“They did a wonderful job on the car,” Riley said. “It’s a gorgeous car.”
So having already earned $115,000 for the Jordan automotive program in two auctions, Team Red Jacket now is planning to sell the Mustang at a third Barrett-Jackson auction, this time in Las Vegas, Oct. 19-21.
Riley figures this experience can be “a stepping stone” for the Jordan students.
“If they get to a confident level, which they should have with this car, they can make it in this industry,” he said. “That’s what we need our young people to feel.”
TEAM RED JACKET
Robert Harris is the director of Jordan Vocational High School’s 200-student automotive program and the coach of Team Red Jacket. Local auto shop owner Mike Young of Safety 1st Collision is the professional consultant, allowed for each team. The 10 Jordan automotive students on Team Red Jacket are Austin Bedsole, Joseph Camacho, Fred Cofer, Joseph Craigen, Alejandro Gomez, Dante Lummus, Breanna Price, Jacob Van Erem, Jacob Wilton and Trennie West.