Martinsville, Virginia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, was once known as the Sweatshirt Capital of the World. But with the unraveling of the U.S. textile industry over the past decade, the Henry County area has lost thousands of clothing factory jobs.
The resulting push to reinvent the region has led to a 29 percent increase in enrollment at Patrick Henry Community College, where the average student age has risen to 34. The college has had to develop new programs to reflect the needs of the community's economic potential. That's where the Motorsports Curriculum comes in. Martinsville is in the heart of NASCAR Country, where stockcar racing is most than just one of America's most popular spectator sports, it's a passion. Fans doggedly follow racing teams, tracks, drivers, even their sponsors. The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing creates and enforces the rules of racing, and also sets the schedule and location of races.
Students who major in Motorsports graduate with not only an Associates Degree, but a racecar they built themselves, from the ground up.
"There are many students, maybe the majority of the students in this program that certainly wouldn't be in this college or perhaps at any college were it not for this program," said Mr. Dodrill.
Earl Dodrill, Dean of Patrick Henry Community College's Motorsports Program, gets a kick out watching his students get revved up about learning. Many of them have found the job market tough going. But now they're on track to become the skilled mechanics and technicians the racing industry has been looking for.
"We had one student work for $16,500 driving a local truck," he said. "He's now making $80,000 a year. So it's going very well, our program has grown to the point where we've had to turn away some students, we just don't have the facility, we have them on a waiting list to bring more in. We've had demand for very advanced, high performance engine program for people that are current professionals and they want to be trained in the most current technologies."
Students can focus on engine building, auto body work, or race team management during their two years at the college. Since it began in 2000 the Motorsports program has grown in popularity and now enrolls about 100 students, everyone from displaced workers starting on a new career path to people like Susan Helms, who've always dreamed about a career in racing.
"I just love working on vehicles" she said. "I've messed around with it probably since I was old enough to drive. I'll go as far as it takes me and if not I can always work on my own stuff."
Ronnie Mize is back in class at age 61, after being laid off from two textile companies, and moving to other towns to find work.
"I uprooted a couple of times and went and worked for UPS in Roanoke for 2 years and Summit Dental out of Salem for two years," said Mr. Mize. "Looks like Martinsville Henry County is going downhill. Would I leave Martinsville Henry County? I believe at my age I'll stick around here and hope for the best."
Johnny Harbour is the third generation in his family to become involved with racing.
"At first, everyone was saying these programs aren't gonna work, you can't get an old hillbilly to be able to build a car," he said. "But hillbillies are more mind oriented [a lot smarter than you think], and they will get something built quicker than a person in college. Like my dad says, you got to have more common sense than you got book sense, 'cause if you don't know how to use it, it ain't no good to you, and that's what they teach you here is how to use it and all that."
But despite what dad or granddad says, the motto in this shop is: "This Ain't Your Grandaddy's Garage." It's not your traditional auto mechanics class, either. What surprises many students are the required math and computer courses, and that they must maintain a "C" average. For many, that means class, four nights a week, four hours a night, after a full day's work.
Instructor Mike Sharp says his classes stick to a schedule that rivals the intensity of a Winston Cup shop, the top NASCAR racing series, featuring America's most talented drivers and state of the art machinery.
"I have a class from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. I have to run them off," he said. "You have to make them leave. They just love working on cars, the biggest thing about the race team. They see this car from a blueprint and then build a complete car and watch it go around the racetrack and compete against other cars."
Along the way they study bodywork and machining, engine and driving performance, motorsports marketing, safety, and eventually race team management. Class for these students might be held on campus, or at the racetracka favorite locationor at the 4,500 square meter Arrington Manufacturing facility, located just down the road from the Community College.
Arrington builds Dodge engines for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and the company's involvement is vital to the success of the Motorsports program. It provides not only lab space, but instructors and apprenticeship opportunities as well.
Other community efforts support the program. The Virginia Tobacco Commission offered tobacco settlement money to get it started. And Dean Earl Dodrill says high-profile NASCAR teams like Petty Enterprises and the Joe Gibbs Racing Team donated money and equipment.
"They don't give that sort of thing away just because we're nice guys," he said. "We're turning out a work force here ultimately that will be working for them so we're very appreciative of all that these teams do, when they partner with us they don't give us their name they totally get themselves involved in what we're doing."
In a town that's been under the economic caution flag for more than its share of laps, the hope is that the Motorsports school is the ticket towards the fast track. So far, the course is getting the community excited again, with the hope that the cars being studied and built in this NASCAR town can carry all of Martinsville to the victory lane.