Parkland students getting on track for motorsports industry
CHAMPAIGN – Scott Breeding of Rantoul took a chamois to a freshly washed green and white Chevy Malibu Thursday afternoon at Parkland College, and Lucas Lange of Gibson City drove it onto the trailer that would take it to the St. Louis area, where they would be drag racing.
Spending weekends racing is part of school for some students in Parkland's automotive technology program.
Parkland has offered courses in the motorsports industry for several years. Starting this fall, automotive technology students can earn a degree with a concentration in motorsports.
Jonathan Ross, one of the instructors for the automotive technology program, believes Parkland's program is the only one in the state offering motorsports classes for credit toward a degree.
Early on, the instructors get their students out to the track, to get them excited.
"It's so much fun," Breeding said. "Not many people get to race a car to begin with. They don't really get to work on good race cars that are in good working shape."
He's been able to do that at Parkland, where he and others in the program help with basic maintenance as well as driving the drag car in races. They'll get up to 90 mph on a 1/8-mile drag strip.
"It throws you back," Breeding said, trying to describe how it feels to drive the car. "It's like getting body-slammed. Getting drop-kicked."
Parkland students have built or modified three cars – the 1980 Malibu for drag racing, a 1990 Honda Civic used for autocross (also driven by students), and a Sportsman fabricated dirt track car.
"It's great they let us do it ourselves," Lange said. "Not too many kids out there get the opportunity to build 600-horsepower motors."
The cars were built as a student activity outside the classroom, but motorsports has slowly moved to be included in the curriculum.
Now there's a five-semester program in which students take motorsports courses or get practical experience each semester, in addition to the basic skills courses required for the automotive technology degree.
The first semester offers a course on the motorsports industry, looking at its sanctioning bodies, rules and the team of people it takes to get a car on the track, including those doing maintenance and driving support vehicles.
"Each individual class in stock car racing is very specialized in how the cars are built and operate," said George Clevenger, another instructor who drives the college's dirt track car. "You can't know all of them."
But, he said, students can learn to work in teams and solve problems, in addition to their basic mechanical skills. That's what will make them attractive to employers, and not necessarily in car racing. They could end up working with powerboats or monster trucks, he said.
Students look at the construction of the car during their second semeter, both at modifying a street car and building one from a fabricated chassis.
During their third semester, students learn about crewing for a racer, including adjusting and tuning the car to get the best performance.
Ross said he teaches a scientific process to look at what changes students want to make, what results they hope to get, and how to test for and document the outcome.
Students are required to get work experience during their last two semesters, either with Parkland's cars or local teams. Ross hopes Parkland will be able to make more contacts with racing teams – maybe develop a formal internship program – to give students an edge in getting a job in motorsports.
Josh Goode of Tolono, who just completed his degree in automotive technology, spent a weekend this summer helping out the Billy Drake Racing team from Bloomington. Goode has been involved with race cars all his life, from watching his father working on his car when Josh was a toddler to driving go-karts at age 8, and moving on to sprint cars and dirt cars.
"Even as long as I've been racing, I've still learned a few different things from them," he said of the Parkland program. "I think it's really a good idea, especially for someone who doesn't have a real history, someone who's fresh and just wants to get into the sport."
He's taking business classes, hoping to start his own small business geared toward the racing industry. "The teachers ... know people in the industry. They help you get to know them," Goode said. "They also have a lot of knowledge about what goes into racing you wouldn't know otherwise. It's really helping open the door to the racing world for people."