Abbey road: Unique school has racetrack connections
|Motorsports and a college that is home to Benedictine monks seems an unlikely fit, but Belmont Abbey is finding success.
|Program Executive Director Pat Wood and Brother Augustine Basque take a spin.
Typically used to train aspiring teachers, a few mornings each week it is put to use by the mostly part-time faculty of an undergraduate program that seems an unlikely fit for a small liberal arts college that is best known for the order of Benedictine monks who have called it home for 140 years.
For a decade now, Belmont Abbey has offered classes in the business of motor racing, the hub of which can be found in and around Charlotte, about 15 miles to the east. Structured loosely as a concentration within the sports management program at its start, motorsports management now exists as its own degree program, with classes that feature industry consulting projects, internships at sanctioning bodies, tracks, teams and marketing firms, and an annual symposium that attracts prominent speakers from across the sport.
Never was the odd juxtaposition of program and host more clearly on display than at last year’s homecoming parade, when two of the abbey’s more gregarious monks took turns riding in a rumbling, retooled Roush Fenway Racing stock car, which was decorated with a few well-placed stickers that asked:
“What differentiates us is geography, industry connections and support,” said Pat Wood, a longtime sports marketing executive who taught as an adjunct in the program and 18 months ago added responsibilities as its executive director, with an emphasis on industry relations. “If you didn’t have the support of the university and the abbot [chancellor], the program wouldn’t exist. You have to have that.“After that, it’s really about the connections.”
Belmont Abbey’s attraction to motorsports is particularly interesting within the broader discussion of sports management education.
The natural attractive powers of sports-related majors have made them popular with schools in recent years, as financial pressures have made filling classroom seats a priority. The dilemma, of course, is that the more than 400 U.S. universities that now offer sports management degrees produce more graduates than there are job openings in sports. That has made differentiation more important than ever, both in terms of attracting quality students and finding jobs for them.
Programs such as UMass, Ohio and Oregon, well-established and with decades worth of alumni working in the field, continue to flourish despite the flood. But for those attempting to compete without that reputation as a foundation, specialization has proved to be an effective route.
The job market for graduates with data analytics skills has led several programs to make that a specialization or track. Variations on the sports media theme also have clicked on several campuses.
But a handful have found their niches by serving specific sports. Belmont Abbey decided to give motorsports a shot a decade ago largely because it was looking for something distinctive that might connect locally.
“You need to go somewhere where they can help you make connections and get experience,” Wood said. “There aren’t a lot of programs with connections to motorsports.”
Finding their path
On a recent Thursday morning, the topic in Mary Beth Chambers’ MM360 motorsports finance class was corporate intelligence, which she chose as a precursor to the due diligence process that the students would need as they began working in tandems on an industry feasibility study.
The project: Determine the potential for expansion by a regional racing series that is considering adding races in another part of the country.
A sales and marketing executive who worked in team sports, Olympic sports and motorsports, Chambers taught as an adjunct in the program before becoming its director. She lined up the feasibility project as she has others, through her connections in the industry. Not only does it provide students with a real world problem to advise on, it gives them a deliverable to show during job interviews after they graduate.
“One of the ways to make a class more engaging for the student is for them to know that what they’re doing is worth something,” said Chambers, who also teaches in Belmont Abbey’s broader sports management program. “It’s going to end up having meaning for another person. That’s credibility.
|John Force Racing’s Steve Cole speaks to students at zMax Dragway.
Chambers and Wood cite years of examples of students turning connections they made on campus, either through projects or with guest speakers or at industry events, into internships and jobs.
Some enter with a familiarity with racing, having grown up driving go-karts, or as part of families that put a car on a track at a local speedway. But most don’t.
“We’ve had kids from all over the country find us through a Google search and decide to give it a shot,” Wood said. “All they know when they get here is that they want to be in racing. Well, how do you do that? What’s the path? That’s something not many people understand, but we do.
“It’s working. The proof is in the people now earning a paycheck.”
Jordan Anderson came to Belmont in 2010 with an established pedigree in racing, well on his way up the developmental ladder as a NASCAR driver. Growing up in Columbia, S.C., he began racing karts as an 8-year-old. By the time he started college, he had driven Legends cars, late-model stocks and trucks.
“I’d try to walk around the garage area and meet as many people as I could, but it’s still hard to make those true authentic connections,” Anderson said. “That’s what coming to this college helped with. It helped me build connections with people. It’s a very unique, niche industry. You have to learn how it works.”
When Anderson graduated, he went racing full time, starting off regionally and then graduating to rides in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series.
Late last season, Anderson put his marketing chops on display. One Monday morning after a race, he got a call from the owner of his truck team, who said they wouldn’t be traveling to New Hampshire that week because they’d run out of funds. Anderson wasn’t ready to go quietly. He racked his brain for a solution, then spent all night doing the coding to build a website: SponsorJordan.com, with the hope of getting fans to fund the $15,000 that he needed to race.
“I was in this sport before I came here, but I realize now that I didn’t completely understand it,” Anderson said. “One of the reasons that I wanted to go to college was that the sport has gone toward
|TOP: Belmont Abbey alum preps for Daytona race. Anderson's, No. 66 on the track at Daytona last year. Anderson put his marketing skills to work to keep racing.
When Jennifer Gibson graduated from the Abbey motorsports program in 2010, she was met with an attractive job offer: brand manager of Carquest Filters. While it was in the automotive sector, it wasn’t in racing. Gibson was disappointed, but took the job.
She stayed in that role for five years before parlaying it into a promotion to brand manager of Wix Filters, a brand that traces its motorsports roots to Richard Petty and touches various forms of racing. Speaking on a panel at Belmont Abbey’s symposium earlier this year, Gibson encouraged students to remain flexible while finding their path and tap into the connections made available through the program.
On that same panel, another 2010 graduate delivered a similar message.
Dan Guffey grew up near Belmont Abbey, but tried two other small colleges before he landed at the school thanks to his mother, who saw that the school had a motorsports program and suggested it as an option. Motorsports was still a concentration at that time, not a major, but even then it provided a point of entry that was hard to find.
His first break came when someone suggested he cold call NASCAR truck racing teams in search of an internship. Teams typically didn’t have interns, but he found one that would take him. That led to a more structured internship with Michael Waltrip Racing, set up by the school. Guffey’s next opportunity came when he met someone who worked in digital at Jeff Gordon Inc. He followed up several times and eventually landed a nine-month internship.
When Guffey graduated, he had a job waiting in internet operations at JGI. He was promoted to director of social media and online business in 2012. When Gordon retired, he trimmed the staff at JGI from more than a dozen to three full-timers. Guffey was one of them.
“Even though I grew up around here, I didn’t know anyone connected to the sport at all before I got to Belmont Abbey,” Guffey said. “I think the biggest testament to the program is that someone could come in, with no ties at all, and be exposed to people in the sport that are key folks.”
Motorsports may lend itself to specialization more than most sports because its structure differs so much from other pro leagues and college programs. Students take the typical business core classes, but layer on management, marketing, facility, law, finance and governance classes that are specific to motorsports.
“This sport and other sports are night and day,” Chambers said. “They go through this program and take the facilities and events class and see how facilities operate differently. We’re not dealing with 16,000 people in an arena. We may be dealing with 10 times that many people. It’s not the same. So how do you deal with that? The governing body is a privately held company. It’s not a collective association of owners. Again, totally different.
“Throughout each class, you have an opportunity to explain the difference.”
As the program’s most recent industry symposium neared its conclusion, Wood introduced the winners of a series of awards named for the program’s founder, Humpy Wheeler, a longtime industry leader who is the retired president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Each received a Wheeler Award made from a driver’s steering wheel, provided by recent grad Zack Skolnick, who launched his own steering wheel company.
After the program’s final panel, Wheeler worked the room touching base with students and swapping stories.
The one that traces to the program’s origin was the least likely of them.
As the technology behind race cars became more sophisticated in the 1990s, several universities launched motorsports engineering tracks to serve the industry. Wheeler thought the business side of the sport was equally in need of better educated, well-trained employees. Winston-Salem State was launching a business-oriented program tied to NASCAR’s diversity efforts. UNC-Charlotte had a short-lived motorsports MBA concentration.
Wheeler grew up around Belmont Abbey and went to prep school there. His father was the athletic director. He thought that connection might help him convince the school to give motorsports education a try.
“They were fascinated in a way but, good Lord, this had never been done before,” Wheeler said. “And educational institutions aren’t big on trying new things. But, finally, they thought it might be a good idea. At that time, the Abbey needed students bad. I said this will bring some people in that maybe we wouldn’t get before. Anything that brings in 30 students is a big deal.”
As it turned out, Wheeler was right. That odd juxtaposition of racing and monks made for a good story, which got Belmont Abbey national attention. Students signed on. Over the years, the curriculum expanded to where it is now, as a fully fledged degree program.
“There was a lot of beating and banging, like there is in anything new,” Wheeler said. “Some of the faculty didn’t think there should be a program in racing. They want English majors. But once you have some success, people get on board.
“This program has brought some pretty bright and capable people into the sport that it wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. That’s something every business needs.”