Made in NC: NASCAR industries keep gaining speed

jstancill@newsobserver.comAugust 11, 2013 

— At Richard Childress Racing, the post-race analysis begins Monday morning when four semis are unloaded from the weekend at Indy.

In the main shop, Sprint Cup crewmen have descended on No. 27, still muddy from the track. They’re taking it apart, piece by piece, to see what worked, what didn’t and what might be tweaked in the slightest way to run the car faster next time.

Across the floor on big metal plates, three cars are waiting for the finishing touches and the computer diagnostics as No. 27, No. 29 and No. 31 are readied for the next race. NASCAR fans gaze down on the sparkling floor from windows on the second floor fan walk, an observation deck just past the glitzy lobby and the historic photos that pay tribute to RCR’s legendary driver, the late Dale Earnhardt.

Besides the Chevrolet being picked apart, roughly two dozen cars line the main shop at RCR. But that’s just one room in one building among 15 at the RCR campus, where more than 450 employees make up one of the biggest operations in NASCAR.

There’s the gear and transmission room, the finished fab room, the paint room, the chassis shop and the engine shop, where massive $70,000 engines line the halls in preparation for testing on three dynamometers, or “dynos” as the technicians call them. In a gigantic weight room, pit crews train several days a week and study films from the previous weekend’s race.

And there are other buildings where top secret engineering takes place. No visitors or photographs are allowed.

RCR is among the most recognized names in NASCAR, but the complex in Welcome is just one of 1,000 racing teams, tracks or motorsports businesses that call North Carolina home, according to the N.C. Motorsports Association.

For a sport with roots in bootlegging in the Appalachian region, stock car racing is an enormous economic engine in this state and beyond. North Carolina boasts 90 percent of NASCAR teams, and more than 25,000 people in this state work in motorsports companies or related businesses. The motorsports association estimates the overall economic impact of the enterprise to be $6 billion in North Carolina.

A dream job

For John Penny, a fabricator at RCR, working in racing is a dream come true. Behind double doors and a handwritten sign, “Respect the Parts Room,” Penny shows a visitor the carbon fiber hoods and the parts that are “gun drilled” to make them lighter. Here is where teams can gain an edge, but sometimes they run afoul of the rules. Earlier this summer, a bunch of teams were busted for illegal roof flap spacers at Daytona International Speedway.

Penny used to work in furniture, first for a cabinet manufacturer, then for a mattress factory. But he hurt his back, and after two surgeries, there was no way he’d work the line again.

At age 39, he returned to school at Forsyth Tech’s Race Car Technology program, where in two years he earned an associate’s degree and learned how to build a car from bumper to bumper. Now he’s able to work on his feet, without risking further injury to his back by having to lift heavy objects. Before, he watched cookie-cutter kitchen cabinets roll down an assembly line.

“Now I turn on the TV on the weekend, I can see what I do. I see my work,” he said. “If we run bad, it makes me mad. If we run good, hey, it makes me happy.

“This,” he added, “is the best job I’ve ever had.”

All told, more than 20 RCR employees came through the Forsyth Tech program, which is housed in a new Transportation Technology Center, a separate campus of the community college that opened in 2012.

‘My students work’

The race car program started in 1999. Bill Wilder, the founder, spent two years making the case to Forsyth Tech and the N.C. Community College System that a separate racecar technology program would attract students. He said he made at least five trips to Raleigh to make the pitch.

“The first year in 1999, it filled up off the bat,” Wilder said. “The program has stayed full ever since.”

The students learn the entire process from welding to machining to chassis fabrication to sheet metal work. They learn transmissions, brakes and suspension systems and, of course, race engine fundamentals.

“They get dirty,” said Randy Butner, the program’s coordinator. “My students work.”

Salaries for graduates start at $30,000, Butner said, but some of NASCAR’s top crew chiefs can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year up to $1 million.

Not all motorsports techies end up at a big operation such as RCR. Some go into smaller businesses that make and sell auto parts. Or they end up in other jobs such as welding or heating and air conditioning or machine work.

On the last day of summer school classes recently, students were testing an engine from Butner’s car, which he races on the weekends. The college has its own racecar that runs on a track in Burlington, and it has a slick red racecar that promotes the program at parades and high schools.

‘Mecca for motorsports’

Timothy Phillips, 28, will start his second year in the program later this month. He got into racing as a kid, helping his uncle who ran on a dirt track in New Jersey.

He worked in automotive repair for a while and saved his money to move to the Winston-Salem area to enroll at Forsyth Tech. He’s a full-time student with a big goal, he said: “I’m hoping I can start my career with a NASCAR team.”

Butner has big ideas, too. North Carolina is NASCAR country, of course. But he’d like to see the state come up with incentives to lure teams that race Indy cars, monster trucks and drag racers.

“We want North Carolina to be the mecca for motorsports,” Butner said, “not just NASCAR.”

Next week: Aviation

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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