THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo
LIMA, Ohio -- Michael Brookes made plans for his future. Once he graduated from high school, he was going to go to an Ohio State University branch campus in his hometown of Marion, Ohio, and study to become a teacher and a football coach.
But Brookes had a hidden passion. In between playing high school football and working with his family in the construction business, Brookes spent his Sundays not watching the NFL, but watching NASCAR events on television.
He realized it would be difficult to break into auto racing as a driver. But a friend suggested another avenue to take in competitive auto racing: Pursuing a role that wasn't as glamorous as driving, but as essential. Brookes' friend suggested he consider the University of Northwestern Ohio, a school that offered a motorsports curriculum.
Less than 20 years ago, UNOH established the country's first high-performance motorsports program in its college of applied technologies, and five years ago it established a high-performance motorsports team, the only school in the nation to field such a team.
"A program like this, it's not just about the training," said Mark Gundrum, the vice president of marketing and communications for ARCA. "It's understanding how to work with people in a traveling scenario. You're leaving home and living on the road for a weekend in a different town, and you're working with a group that's aiming for the same goal: The precision of having the race cars as tuned as they can be and making fast pit stops.
"We need trained individuals to come into the business and into the sport, and who can immediately participate at a high level."
Luck or lineage
With the growth in the popularity of motorsports came the interest in involvement. Race teams didn't want novices joining their team, and they didn't have time or resources to train new crew members.
Before the advent of educational motorsports programs, Gundrum explained that there were traditionally two ways to earn training and to work for a racing team -- either by luck or by lineage.
"In the early days of the sport, you were born into it and likely stayed in it," Gundrum said. "If you're born and raised in the business, if you're second- or third-generation, you've been around the sport your whole life."
Yet while only a handful of schools across the country offer a motorsports-centered curriculum, it's become a cottage industry. Pete Hylton, the director of the motorsports engineering program at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, summarized the philosophy in the educational boom: Buy American.
"We recognized about six or seven years ago that no one in this country was training college graduates for motorsports," Hylton said. "If you looked at most of the major racing teams in this country, they were bringing in their engineers from the United Kingdom. For years, schools had been training engineers in particular areas such as aerospace engineering, chemical engineering and mechanical engineering, but not in motorsports."
Each school offers different areas of academic concentration in motorsports, and each area of expertise is essential for others in order for successful co-existence.
For example, while IUPUI concentrates in engineering, UNOH offers vocational and technical training. Winston-Salem (N.C.) State offers a program in motorsports management, and North Carolina-Charlotte offers a degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in motorsports.
"The schools are doing different things, but are doing things that are an integral part of the industry," Hylton said. "People can design a race car, but you need mechanics and technicians to put the car on the track. And if you don't have the right management, your team is going to fall apart on the track. Those different pieces are equally important."
Some students, like Brookes, enter a motorsports program as novices. They've never driven a precision vehicle. They may have changed a tire out of necessity.
Others grew up racing and maintaining their own go-karts and motorcycles, while some others were students who went to technical high schools to learn auto-related trades of engine maintenance or auto-body work.
Andy O'Neal, the dean of UNOH's college of technologies, explained that what differentiates UNOH's program is that the school's offerings in areas such as engine building, and tuning, and welding, and fabrication are grounded in muscle work and fueled by elbow grease.
Of the 4,500 students at the Lima campus, between 600 and 700 are enrolled in the high-performance motorsports program, which offers diplomas and associate's degrees and the option to earn a bachelor's degree in business administration, with a specialization in automotive management.
Of those students, only a fraction will make the school's motorsports team each school year.
"Our program revolves around allowing students how to work on things," said O'Neal, the dean of UNOH's college of technologies. "That's where the jobs are in racing."
Making the team
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo
As part of a university initiative, UNOH revived its athletic program in 2007, adding its motorsports team as one of 10 varsity sports.
Students must apply to join the team, which currently has 34 members but can have anywhere from 40 to 60 members, and each member must re-apply annually to join the team.
Ryan O'Dette, a senior, admitted that his mother filled out his first application three years ago. But before she returned the application, she offered her son some advice.
"She told me, 'I can't do this again,' " O'Dette said. "She told me, 'You have to interview yourself, and you can't be afraid to talk to people.' "
O'Dette answered questions about his personal background, and his expectations as part of the team and his experience in dirt-track racing.
He made the team. His first responsibility?
"That was the dirty work, but I did it the whole time," said O'Dette, who drives for one of the modified teams and is a crew member during the week. "You have to treat it as a job."
The motorsports teams include four stock car teams and two modified teams, and there are at least five people on each team: A driver, an engine specialist, a shocks and springs specialist, a tire specialist, and a chassis/driveline specialist. In addition, each team has a crew chief and is overseen by a general manager.
In some instances, the selection committee struggles choosing between two applicants. In those cases, the selection committee will most likely name both members to the team.
"When in doubt, put them both on the team," said Paul Higgins, the head of the high performance motorsports department and the motorsports coach team. "Sometimes they'll surprise you."
But each team member has to work his or her way up the team's hierarchy. Entering his senior year, Brookes is now the student manager of the motorsports team, acting as a liaison between students and administrators, as well as delegating tasks among the team and, on some occasions, serving as a crew chief. But Brookes began as a crew member. He swept floors. He organized tools.
Menial tasks in a time-consuming endeavor might not sit well with some students on the motorsports team who balance their commitment to the racing team with a full course load, as well as family commitments, off-campus job obligations and the ever-present factor of a college student's social life.
One team member has noticed another challenging dynamic: Some team members bring their passion to the garages, to the classrooms, and to the pits. Others only do the minimum that's required, much to the chagrin of those who spend off hours in the garages.
"Many of the students aren't ready for the amount of work that goes into a race weekend," Gundrum said. "That's the eye-opener. There's a perceived amount of glamour that goes into it, but for students in these programs, they get to the race track at sun-up and they're still there at sundown. They get a new appreciation for what goes into this."
Some of the students at the track have dreams of working in the professional racing circuits and have already reached out to driving teams and racing organizations. Others, however, will take the practical knowledge they've gained and open their own businesses, or work in another field of the automotive industry, such as auto-body repair and restoration.
Brookes sees his work at UNOH as an opportunity to pursue an ambition that he may not again have the opportunity to fulfill. "I can always go back to school and become a teacher," Brookes said. "But I'll only get one chance to be able to do this."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.