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A Jump in Profits

Would you like to know how a Michigan body shop owner’s 8-year-old son doubled the facility’s profits? Here’s a hint. It involved a ramp, nine cars, a motorbike and “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

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Robb LaPeen Jr. has been racing his motorbike for years, winning numerous regional and national titles. He broadened his horizons last year when he took up jumping over cars, sort of like Evel Knieval. So when Robb’s father asked him to leap over nine cars last August as part of a car show to hype the elder LaPeen’s body shop expansion, he was happy to oblige, even if it meant the extra practicing would eat into the third grader’s summer vacation.

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That’s not a misprint. At the time of the jump, Robb was 8 years old.

Opening the Throttle
Robb LaPeen Sr. was always interested in riding motorcycles. That and fixing cars. Who’d have thought that back when he was in high school – hanging panels on cars, taking welding classes in shop and fixing old cars to make them look cool – his love of fixing cars and his love of riding bikes would one day converge and double the monthly sales of his body shop? And who’d have thought that convergence centered around a little blond kid who wasn’t even born when the Berlin Wall came down?

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LaPeen bought Auto-Brite Collision, in Mt. Morris, Mich., in 1994. In the year leading up to last August, he relocated the shop to a larger facility, which kept him busier than a priest hearing Confession during the Apocalypse. He was working on transferring business from the old site, which was still operating while the new shop got up and running. All this, plus LaPeen also added an accessory line to the new shop.

Early last summer, to celebrate the opening of his new location and accessory line, LaPeen decided to have a car show outside his new facility. The ceremony, however, would be a bit belated since the new building and accessory line had been in operation for about a year already. “I never had a grand opening [before] because I was so busy with the move,” says LaPeen.

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And come to think of it, if the grand opening had taken place the year before, there wouldn’t have been the big motorcycle jump by his son, since the boy had only taken up the activity a few months before the show. In fact, discovering Robb Jr. could jump over vehicles happened almost by accident.

Taking the Training Wheels Off
Robb Jr. has been riding motocross bikes since he was 2 years old, and has been racing competitively since he was 4 years old. Think about how old you were when you first learned to ride a bicycle, and it puts things in perspective.

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“I was always interested in riding, so Robb was born with an interest to ride,” says LaPeen Sr. “From his earliest days of playing with toys, he was a motorcycle guy. I used to take him out on my dirt bike and he’d hold the handlebars. I’d even put a little helmet on him.”

It was on these rides where LaPeen would teach Robb how to steer, along with the other fine points of managing a motorbike. Robb absorbed the information like a sponge, and at an age when most kids are still in diapers, he was riding motorbikes by himself. Robb began racing competitively as soon as he was old enough, doing dirt track races in the summer and ice track races in the winter. In 1999, he won the national motocross championship, held in Indianapolis, for the 7-to-9-year-old division, where the kids travel up to 50 mph.

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It was last spring when Robb developed a knack for jumping over cars, and it really was something discovered by “accident.”

The accident occurred behind LaPeen’s shop. Robb was attempting a hill-to-hill jump – like the ones he’d done many times in dirt track races – and his back tire landed on a rock. Robb was pitched forward, breaking his left arm and collarbone. LaPeen wondered if his son would still want to keep riding, but it wasn’t long after the accident when the kid asked how soon he could race again.

Two weeks after getting the cast off, Robb was ready to try jumping from one hill to another. But LaPeen wanted a safe ramp for his child, with no obstructions or impediments. So he built a ramp behind his shop, which he placed against the landing hill, leaving no gap in between. This way, Robb could ride up and down the take-off and landing hills to get his confidence back.

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“We’d scoot the ramp back 2 feet at a time, and he’d jump that distance until he got used to it,” says LaPeen. “But once we got it scooted back to 45 feet, he didn’t want to scoot it back anymore. He didn’t feel safe.”

While LaPeen and Robb’s long-time trainer, Billy Hopper, easily jumped the distance to show how simple it was, Robb wasn’t comfortable. So LaPeen decided, just for kicks, to shorten the gap a bit and place a truck in it. When LaPeen jumped the truck, he felt safe doing it. Safe enough to let his son try.

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“Then Robb jumped over the truck, and he liked the truck being there,” LaPeen says. “So we scooted the ramp back some more, to get another car in there, and he jumped it. In fact, he won’t do that kind of jump now without the cars being there. It’s a mental thing. He needs some sort of obstacle there.”

As the men moved the ramp back, they saw they didn’t have enough cars, so they started parking them end to end rather than side by side. Robb made the jumps easily. And a new grand opening idea was born.

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You’re Motorin’- What’s Your Price for Flight?
Mt. Morris is just outside of Flint, Mich. As soon as the “Flint Journal” got word that an 8-year-old was planning to jump nine cars at a car show, they were outside the LaPeen’s door, taking pictures of the young rider and printing an article just a few days before the planned jump, which was scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 26. Then on Thursday, Child Protective Services (CPS) informed LaPeen that they were trying to get a court order to prevent the boy from jumping. Their assertion was that the jump endangered Robb’s safety and was, therefore, a case of parental neglect. CPS also reported getting more than 100 complaints about the jump from people who’d read the article in the “Flint Journal,” among them the boy’s grandmother.

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“[CPS] served me with papers on Thursday, saying that Robb couldn’t ride at all,” says LaPeen. “So it’s Friday morning and we’re in court in Lansing, the state capital. If anything, [CPS] made it less safe for Robb because [their order] prevented him from practicing.”

The Friday ruling, handed down by referee Carolyn C. Berger, was in the LaPeens’ favor and stated that the petition to stop Robb’s jump showed no evidence of neglect. So the jump was on, and the story’s controversy attracted lots of publicity.

“After CPS got involved, the story went nationwide on “Fox News” and was carried in California, Oregon and Florida,” says LaPeen. “I bet half the people who showed up [for the jump] came to see Robb crash.”

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The jump was over nine cars, but only four were exposed. The other five were under the landing area, surrounded by bales of hay. The new layout was LaPeen’s decision. “His first jump was only about 52 feet,” says LaPeen. “I had to make it safe, or they would’ve thrown me in jail.”

More than 500 people came out to the car show to watch Robb jump. In fact, the guy selling hot dogs made more than $1,000 at the all-day event. Meanwhile, the money from the admission tickets – well over $1,000 – went to the Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization. And LaPeen was getting a chance to show the townspeople his new shop. It was hours of free advertising, and the kid wouldn’t jump until 3 p.m.

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For the jump, Robb powered his 80-cc Kawasaki 35 mph up the ramp, soaring 14 feet high in the air over a distance of more than 50 feet. He landed perfectly, and the crowd cheered like they’d never seen a third-grader jump a motorbike over cars before. To prove it wasn’t a fluke, Robb jumped three more times, the last time hot-dogging a bit as he kicked out his left leg while in midair.

Jumping on the Bandwagon
The attention on Auto Brite Collision and Robb didn’t end with that jump. It turns out the people at “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” declared the kid’s stunt unbelievable enough to warrant a segment on their television show, which aired on Feb. 28 on TBS.

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They sent a crew out to Auto Brite in October to film the kid jumping over eight, then nine, and finally – would you believe it? – 10 cars, the last jump covering 70 feet. And Robb added more hot-dog moves for the cameras, like taking his hands off the bars while in mid-air or kicking his legs out, which gave the appearance he was flying.

But getting the action on camera involved a lot of inaction, like having Robb pose with his bike while the director repeatedly worked to get “just one more shot,” from as many camera angles as possible. Robb, like an 8-year-old in a fabric store, thought the whole filming process was “boring.”

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The publicity surrounding Robb and his jumping ability has helped to line not just his pockets, but his dad’s, as well.

“He made some money from the Ripley’s thing,” LaPeen says. “And we sell T-shirts [of his big jumps], which goes into his savings account and college fund. And since last summer, sales at my shop have doubled.”

While other schools are loaded with kids in Abercrombie & Fitch apparel, many of the kids at Edgerton Elementary, where Robb attends third grade, can be spotted wearing RippinRobb T-shirts. And the traffic to Robb’s Web site, www.rippinrob.com, has soared since the jump. Yes, a kid too young to remember our country’s last economic recession has his own Web site. And if that weren’t enough, the poor kid has older women calling his house. “Some of these girls who call him are 13 years old,” says LaPeen.

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But what does Robb’s future hold? Would he rather jump over the Grand Canyon or take over his dad’s shop? “He’s still young, but at the shop, he greets customers as they come in, and acts as if he owns the place,” says LaPeen. “But he loves racing. And he’s got lots of potential. Evel Kneival didn’t start jumping until he was 28, so Robb has a 20-year headstart on him. But I don’t want him to do anything too crazy.”

But what is crazy? Besides working his way up to a faster class of racing motorbikes, where he’ll be whooshing by at 100 mph, Robb’s preparing for next year’s car show – which has become an annual event, due in large part to his jump. This time, Robb will attempt to jump over a house.

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Writer Mike Lawrence is associate editor of BodyShop Business.

Neglecting the Facts
It wasn’t just Child Protective Services that voiced their concern about

Robb’s jump. The editorial board of the “Flint Journal” ran a commentary criticizing the judgment of Robb’s parents in allowing him to jump over the vehicles.

“The newspaper dogged me,” LaPeen says. In fact, LaPeen received numerous calls from concerned citizens when the paper first reported Robb’s upcoming jump. Some of those citizens also claimed that LaPeen was exploiting his son for his own personal gain.

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But LaPeen says those being critical don’t have all the facts. “For Robb, racing and jumping is like walking to most other kids,” he says. “In the summer, he practices every day for two hours. In the winter, he practices at least twice a week. And he’s been riding competitively since he was 4 years old. You have to understand that I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours working with him.”

When it comes to charges they exploit their child, LaPeen points out that he and his wife don’t push their son into racing or jumping. “When he was younger, we pushed him into trying sports like soccer and hockey, but he didn’t like them,” he says. “So when it comes to racing, we take a different approach. We don’t force him to do anything. We give him an option: Would you like to ride or do something else? But when he does have a big jump coming up, he’ll practice a little more.”

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LaPeen wrote a response to the “Flint Journal’s” commentary, and it ran along with numerous other unsolicited letters supporting the LaPeens’ decision. Some townsfolk even called Robb a “hero.”

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