North Carolina is the hub for motorsports management programs

Heidi Finley

Winston-Salem State University motorsports management students Sidney Pritchett (left) and Walter Thomas III (right) with NHRA driver Antron Brown. As a teenager in 2012, Thomas became the first African American to win the Outlaw Track Championship at Indianapolis Speedrome, and he won NASCAR’s Young Racer Award. Photo courtesy of WSSU

Motorsports is a huge industry in the Carolinas, and all that race day excitement for cheering fans comes along with potential career pathways for students.

North Carolina is home to two colleges with motorsports management programs — Belmont Abbey College and Winston-Salem State University. No other four-year undergraduate degree programs with the specialization are found in the United States, although there’s some abroad and several U.S. colleges carry the focus as part of a broader sports management degree.

Motorsports management careers can include work in operations and logistics, marketing, public relations, sponsorships and event planning or hospitality management.

Pat Wood, executive director of Belmont Abbey’s program, said the concentration of motorsports in the Carolinas makes for a wide range of business needs at racetracks, distributors of parts, manufacturers and elsewhere. “There’s so many jobs,” he said.

Steve Cole, the vice president of John Force Racing (left), Fox Sports reporter Amanda Busick and Belmont Abbey motorsports management program executive director Pat Wood talk during an event at zMAX Dragway in Concord. Photo courtesy of Belmont Abbey

WINSTON-SALEM STATE

Winston-Salem State is the nation’s first and only four-year public university to offer a bachelor of science degree in motorsports management. It’s also a historically black college or university, complementing NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative to include more women and ethnic minorities in motorsports.

The college’s program carries options for concentrations in motorsports operations or in motorsports marketing and event planning. It’s based in the Bowman Gray Stadium Fieldhouse, where the founding fathers of NASCAR, Bill France Sr. and Alvin Hawkins, started racing in 1949.

Assistant professor Clay Harshaw, the program coordinator at Winston-Salem State, is also the editor of the International Journal of Motorsport Management. He said the program “gives an excellent overview of the motorsports industry from the grassroots level to the top levels of racing.”

“We have had students involved in field experiences with NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar, IMSA, World of Outlaws and MotoAmerica. We have even assisted the NC Quarter Midgets Association with an event,” he said.

Harshaw added, “One of the hallmarks of the WSSU Motorsports Management program is the extensive field experience used to enhance the students’ understanding of the industry, to assist them in developing their skills in a real-world environment, and to develop their industry network.”

WSSU’s motorsports management program gives back to the community in Winston-Salem in partnership with the city by sponsoring the Diversity in Motion initiative camps. The free camps, for students from kindergarten through high school, are designed to expose youth to motorsports career opportunities. Photo courtesy of WSSU

Winston-Salem State students participate in events at Charlotte Motor Speedway, zMAX Dragway and Martinsville Speedway, but have also had field experiences at further-flung sites including Daytona International Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.

Harshaw said, “I tell students that this is the most fun major you can have in school. Where else are you required to attend races as part of your schoolwork? With that fun, though, comes a lot of hard work – with field experiences at the events and in the classroom.”

Required coursework in the governance and technical aspects of motorsports are complimented with core classes such as facility design and crowd management, sponsorship in motorsports or finance and economics in sports.

The school says its hands-on program is interdisciplinary and collaborative. A semester-long internship is required after completing the coursework, which Harshaw said provides a pathway for making career placement connections and finding a job after graduation.

Students have interned in media relations for Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing in NASCAR; in general management and marketing for Don Schumacher Racing in the NHRA; and in marketing at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Virginia International Raceway, he said.

Winston-Salem State’s close ties with Drive for Diversity have also led to internships, along with the school hosting pit crew combines. “Some our students have earned pit crew opportunities with teams as a result of these on-campus events,” Harshaw said.

BELMONT ABBEY

Belmont Abbey, a private college, offers a bachelor of arts in motorsports management, which comes along with a minor in business.

Wood said Belmont Abbey students’ interests are all over the landscape, and they work with all the motorsports sanctioning bodies, including NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1 and NHRA drag racing.

The Belmont school touts its degree program — co-founded by former President and General Manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway Humpy Wheeler Jr. — as a unique incorporation of the “Benedictine hallmarks of stewardship, community, and discipline.”

It started out as a concentration within sports management but evolved into a full major several years ago.

Wood said, “In racing, you’ve got the guys who work on the concrete side of the race shop,” but there was a need for specialized training in sales, marketing and finance. So at Belmont Abbey, there’s a “focus on everything but the engineering of the car.”

Brittany Force, an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel driver, joins her father, 16-time NHRA world champion John Force, along with Pat Wood and Belmont Abbey motorsports management students. Photo courtesy of Belmont Abbey

Coursework includes classes such as public relations and media in motorsports, and a senior seminar in which students develop a capstone project and a portfolio ready to show off to potential employers.

Wood said the setup has worked well. “We’ve got close to 100 kids who have been through the program, and outstanding alums who are doing great stuff. We’re very proud of that … and the good news is they’re getting into their second job or getting promoted and moving into positions of management that are paying back” to the college through hiring interns. It’s “going full circle.”

Up to 12 credit hours are available for internships, but 6 hours are required — and that will be moving up to 9 hours at some point, Wood said. So, “most of junior and senior year they’ll be doing practical work in racing bodies.”

Belmont Abbey students have interned at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, along with driver development series and other racing entities. The college’s alumni and industry connections also translate to opportunities for Belmont Abbey’s students to assist with special programs at racetracks, such as Darlington’s Labor Day weekend race and Penske Racing’s 50th anniversary celebration.

These events — where students do all sorts of things, including stuffing invitations and goodie bags, setting tables and helping hand out credentials — give the students extra contact points for making connections within the industry without just gawking as fans.

“We pop the superfan bubble pretty early on. One thing they have in common is a real enthusiasm for the sport. But you can’t be acting like an autograph hound in the garage,” Wood said.

Belmont Abbey hosted its first motorsports symposium this year and is planning on another next year. Wood said it was a learning experience for industry veterans to talk about “what’s keeping them up at night and how they’re managing, along with how students in our program are helping with those efforts.”

Wood said students thinking about pursuing a career in motorsports should consider more than just their love for racing.

“If you’re a big fan, you buy a ticket for the race. But if you want to work in motorsports, you have to be a fan of the business,” he said.

 

Heidi Finley is the editor of Carolina College Bound. Send questions or suggestions to hfinley@charlotteobserver.com