Get on a career track to racing in North Carolina

With more than 300 professional racing teams, Lowe's Motor Speedway, 50 other racetracks, motorsports museums, various support industries from marketing firms to automotive equipment suppliers, and NASCAR's corporate branch offices all calling North Carolina "home," it's no surprise that racing is big business in the Tar Heel State.

At the hub of the sport, NASCAR's epicenter, is Charlotte and the surrounding area. Thousands seeking employment in the motorsports industry flock there every year, hoping to get the lucky break that will land them their dream job. Despite the opportunity, however, it takes a lot more than luck to work in racing.

John Dodson is community and NASCAR race team relations director at the NASCAR Technical Institute, an automotive training school in Mooresville, N.C. His employment in racing began while he was still in high school.

"I worked for Richard Childress when he was a driver in Winston-Salem," Dodson said. "I changed tires in the 1979 Daytona 500 for him when I was 17 years old. From there, I went to work for Petty Enterprises, and then for Tim Richmond in the Old Milwaukee car, which became the Kodiak car. I worked for Rusty Wallace, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, Richard Petty, Kyle Petty ... lots of teams."

But Dodson knows that things have changed dramatically since he began in NASCAR.

"The day has long passed that you can just graduate from high school and work on an automobile, and the same thing has happened with NASCAR racing," Dodson said. "There's too much technology in the sport now for that, and you must be educated before you try to enter it."

NTI, a branch of Universal Technical Institute of Arizona, opened its doors in 2002 and offers a 39-week core program in automotive technology as a prerequisite to its 18-week NASCAR technology program. Further specialization is available by adding a 12-week Ford product-specific program.

"You certainly can't learn about NASCAR cylinder heads and high performance brake systems unless you know how they work on street cars," Dodson said. "The plus side of that is that if you can't find that job in NASCAR right away, you can still get a job. You can make a living as a technician and gain experience until that job in NASCAR comes along, so you're not just locked into one area."

All NTI instructors for the traditional automotive service courses must be ASE certified in the areas in which they teach and must have a minimum of five years of industry experience. The instructors who teach the NASCAR courses must have a minimum of five years of motorsports industry experience in their areas of instruction as well.

NTI has the distinction of being the "exclusive educational partner of NASCAR," meaning that it is the only school that has the use of the NASCAR name. NASCAR licensees also provide equipment to the school for educational use.

"We're the country's first technical training school to combine a complete automotive technology program and a NASCAR-specific motorsports program," Dodson said. "My connections with motorsports brought me here and that's helped with what we're doing in the NASCAR industry -- knowing all the teams and the people and having that type of relationship. From being a race car builder and shop foreman and holding all the different jobs in the shop, I know exactly what the teams are looking for, and I pass that on to the instructors.

"We're on the cutting edge of new technology. NASCAR keeps us informed about rule and technology changes that teams and suppliers need to comply with. Our instructors go to the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, and we're building Car of Tomorrow cars here now. That's where partnering with NASCAR keeps us well informed."

Dodson said students aren't required to have prior training to attend NTI, although many do, and courses are designed to bring those with no prior training up to the minimum level required by industry standards, as well as helping those who have experience and training to further develop their skills.

"It's not unusual to have people here in their 40s and 50s, because people want to change careers," he said. "We also have women here. The automotive industry is a great place to make a living, and for every 10 technicians retiring from the industry, only three or four are entering, so there are lots of jobs available.

"Of course, not everyone can be Jeff Gordon's crew chief or Tony Stewart's setup guy, but this is the place to take the first steps towards positions like that."

Dodson said that while NTI placed 92 percent of its 2006 graduates in jobs, only a small percentage are working directly for NASCAR teams.

"Racing in North Carolina is a $5 billion industry," Dodson said. "It's huge in this state. The governor and the people in our capital, Raleigh, are really behind racing. They understand the economic impact it makes. But that's not just from the race teams. That's part of it, but another huge part of it is all of the industries and the infrastructure that supports the race teams. We put many of our graduates to work at companies like Fluidyne radiators, Jericho transmissions, Lajoie seats ... a lot of those companies hire our graduates, too. There is a lot of opportunity."

For job seekers not mechanically inclined, a new program at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., offers instruction on the booming business side of motorsports.

"We're the first program to offer a bachelor's degree in business management with a concentration in motorsports management," said Dr. Tracy Rishel, director of the program. "The concentration classes are in sports marketing, racing management, team management and motorsports fundamentals.

"Also unique to the program, students will complete a total of three internships. The internships are to help students identify what they're interested in within the industry and to make contacts. We've had people with different teams, at NASCAR, at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and with support organizations. Our feedback indicates that both employers and students have had rewarding experiences, so that's progressing in a positive direction."

Internships are required in each of three areas -- track operations, race teams, and support operations -- providing a broad base of experience for each student.

"This program is greatly needed in our booming industry," said Speedway Motorsports, Inc. president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, a member of the college's board of directors. "We have several institutions offering motorsports engineering and technical degrees and one community college with a two-year motorsports management degree, but this four-year degree at the Abbey will help us meet the great need to feed new management people into racing, where there are over 7,000 jobs in North Carolina and probably 20,000 across America."

The motorsports management concentration includes instruction about forms of motorsports other than NASCAR, such as drag racing, open-wheel racing, and dirt track racing.

"Doug Herbert's NHRA Top Fuel team is located just outside of Charlotte, and they've worked closely with us," Rishel said. "I'm constantly working to develop different relationships in different series. Because they're not concentrated here like NASCAR is, it's more of a challenge, but that's an ongoing part of expanding our program."

In addition to many technical and business schools, North Carolina is also home to several "experiential" schools offering instruction on driving and pitting a race car.

The North Carolina Motorsports Association is a trade association for the motorsports industry involved in public policy, business development, workforce development, and networking. Working with educational institutions is a key component of NCMA's workforce development initiative as the organization strives to attract and retain motorsports jobs in the state.

"When people are looking at motorsports programs, they should consider what part of the industry they want to enter," said Andy Papathanassiou, NCMA executive director. "Since we are so multifaceted, English and computer courses can help just as much as mechanical and fabrication classes. Also, the industry is very entrepreneurial, so opportunities exist to run businesses that can cater to race teams. In that case, general business and management classes can help as well. It all depends on where you want to go."