Socket Wrenches in the Book Bag

Since the 1990s, NASCAR has grown from a sport rooted in the Southeast to an American institution with a fan base second only to the National Football League. Throughout NASCAR’s history, North Carolina has always been among its central locations and the sport has done fine here without government assistance.

Today the sport has its home base in the state, with most of the teams in its three main divisions (Nextel Cup, Busch Series, Craftsman Truck) setting up shop in the Charlotte region. Industry estimates claim that auto racing contributes $5 billion annually to the state’s economy and creates more than 24,000 jobs, most of them related to engineering, design, and fabrication of the stock cars. Those are jobs that, for the most part, require a higher level of training that that of your typical auto mechanic.

Is it necessary, however, for the state to spend taxpayer money to set up training programs for people who want to work in auto racing? North Carolina lawmakers believe the state’s public higher education institutions should offer that training to the racing industry.

In recent years, a number of community colleges in the state have opened training programs specifically geared to the needs of the auto racing industry. Also, UNC-Charlotte has a motorsports engineering program with a mission to “promote the education of students in the broad areas of motorsports and automotive engineering.”

This endeavor was boosted recently by a $500,000 state appropriation to help fund the North Carolina Motorsports Consortium, which would be located within the North Carolina Community College System. The consortium is supposed to work to develop curriculum to train students for employment within the motorsports industry. According to the funding bill, the money would “provide specific leaders in particular areas of functions in order to improve the quality of learning and services for the industry.”

But is the training of future NASCAR employees a proper use of taxpayer money?

In my opinion, it is not. Consider for a moment another industry in North Carolina that makes a similar economic impact in the state – Wal-Mart. The department store operates 146 stores and distribution centers in North Carolina. The company spends $4 billion annually for merchandise and services in the state and supports more than 83,000 jobs. Building, maintaining and running all those facilities requires a lot of knowledge, yet no one is calling for specialized training through the state’s higher education institutions for Wal-Mart employees and contractors. Why should it be any different for the training of an engine fabricator who may work for Richard Childress Racing?

Since NASCAR has been thriving for many decades, it’s evident that people have been learning what they need to know about engineering, design, and fabrication of racecars somewhere.

Privately, NASCAR has attached its name on a training facility located in Mooresville, which calls itself “Race City, USA.” The NASCAR Technical Institute (NTI) operates many of the same programs that are offered at UNC-Charlotte and the community colleges. The biggest difference is that it is operated by for-profit Universal Technical Institute, not the state. If the demand for NASCAR workers continues to grow, NTI can expand its own operations or NASCAR can find other ways to provide training for employees that don’t require any state expenditure.

Fundamentally, however, I believe that opening training facilities in the state’s higher education institutions has little to do with students and education, but has everything to do with keeping the motorsports industry in North Carolina.

As late as 1996, North Carolina hosted six Winston Cup (now Nextel Cup) events and one all-star race (The Winston, now known as the Nextel All-Star Challenge) In 1996, North Wilkesboro Speedway was closed and its dates given to other locations. In 2004, North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham lost its final race, though the track is still used for testing and an occasional movie such as “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

When those tracks were closed and dates given to out-of-state venues, primarily to schedule races in other markets, North Carolina officials feared that racing teams would follow and perhaps leave for states like South Carolina and Virginia that had established efforts to attract more motorsports teams.

A 2004 report entitled “Motorsports: A North Carolina Growth Industry Under Threat” played on these fears. The study’s authors, which included UNC-Charlotte’s Urban Institute and The Sanford Holshouser Business Development Group, argued that allowing NASCAR teams to tap into the One North Carolina Fund would help the teams stay in the state. It also argued that the state should invest more in training facilities.

“Pursuing the cutting edge of motorsports technology would be a wise strategic investment to make,” the study said. “North Carolina can pull ahead of other states to a preeminent position in motorsports technology by wise investments.” In plain English, that means that the state should dangle incentives and subsidies in front of the motorsports industry just as it has been doing with many other businesses.

Truly “wise investments” can best be made by team owners who will receive the direct benefit of a better-trained workforce. If for some reason NTI should prove to be inadequate, industry leaders could partner with UNC schools or community colleges for training programs where they bear the full cost.

Editor’s Note: This is the final commentary from Shannon Blosser, who is leaving the Pope Center after being with the organization since 2004. He is leaving to begin studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.