MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Craig Hibdon, an instructor at the NASCAR Institute of Technology, holds up a dial caliper that can measure engine parts to one-thousandth of an inch: "A nice little tool," he tells students in his NASCAR Engines I course.
Next door, at PIT Instruction and Training, coach Andrew Carter models proper hip placement, footwork, and weight distribution to achieve a 13-second pit stop.
And down the road at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, graduates are shopping their motorsports-engineering degrees among the many racing teams based in their school's backyard.
It's all part of a wider boom in NASCAR-oriented college-level courses being offered throughout the South and particularly in greater Charlotte, home to Lowes Motor Speedway and scores of NASCAR team headquarters - and it's one of myriad ways that the NASCAR craze has transformed this region.
The bevy of training programs and NASCAR attractions draw more than students. In Mooresville, 30 miles north of Charlotte, bus tours pack in race fans for trips to the enormous headquarters of Dale Earnhardt Inc., the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame, and the Richard Petty Driving School. The town, after all, has been courting the racing industry since the late 1980s when its textile industry began to fade. Motorsports is a $5 billion a year industry here, according to the Mooresville Chamber of Commerce, and the town boasts 60 race teams and more than 100 race-related suppliers. There are more personal bragging rights, too: It's where Dale Earnhardt Jr. attended high school.
Charlotte, too, is a NASCAR mecca, and a far cry from its one-time reputation of a shirt-and-tie banking town. You can't throw a fistful of lug nuts without hitting someone employed by or affiliated with stock-car racing, America's fastest-growing sport. The promise of working alongside Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon has lured an entire generation of aspiring NASCAR drivers, mechanics, and pit crews. And just as a cottage industry of acting schools grew to meet the demands of aspiring actors in Hollywood early in the 20th century, the past few years have seen an explosion of NASCAR-themed training schools around Charlotte.
But Charlotte also has its own version of Hollywood's boulevards of broken dreams: Many students here are discovering that a motorsports-technology degree from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College or an engineering degree from the University of North Carolina is not necessarily a ticket to a NASCAR career. In fact, at the NASCAR Institute of Technology, students must sign a disclaimer that states, "I understand that by graduating from any NASCAR training program, I am not guaranteed employment in the automotive industry [or] NASCAR."
Working for a racing team - as a pit-crew member or mechanic - was once a part-time weekend lark of a job. But in NASCAR's Nextel-sponsored big leagues, pit crews and engineers have recently begun to broach the six-figure salary mark, which has led to competition for jobs - and among training schools.
PIT's founder, Breon Klopp, estimates that 55 to 60 percent of his graduates find jobs with racing teams, and many alumni will be changing tires and refueling at races this weekend. Some of those alumni come back to teach at PIT during the week.
"We like that," Klopp said. "It inspires the new kids."
In NASCAR, speed is money. Every second that a race car spends in the pits translates to roughly a half mile lost on the race track, so that a pit crew performing one second faster than a competing crew can give its driver a half-mile advantage. A few fast pit stops can make the difference between first place and fifth. In terms of dollars earned, that's a million-dollar difference at some of NASCAR's larger races.
But until recently, says Klopp, there was a lack of training and physical and mental conditioning among pit crews. So the former football trainer transferred practices from the football field to the racing world, and he frequently uses football analogies. "We're trying to develop players," he says.
The school offers a basic eight-week program, Pit Crew U, followed by an optional advanced-level course, called "5 Off 5 On: Race Team Performance." The term "5 off 5 on" refers to a tire-changer's duty: Five lug nuts come off, five go on.
In a testament to the school's success, PIT now has a contract to train the pit crew of NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, and the pit crews of other NASCAR racing teams visit regularly to cherry pick the best students.
On a recent afternoon, Petty's crew leaped off a two-foot concrete wall as a 3,400-pound car screeched to a halt. In a flurry of whirring wrenches and flying lug nuts, the seven-man crew changed four tires and simulated a fuel refill in 14 seconds.
At NASCAR Institute of Technology (NIT), which opened in 2002 and resides in the same business park as PIT, students can study for anywhere from 48 to 78 weeks, with tuition ranging between $23,550 and $34,600. They learn how to build and maintain race cars and engines from instructors who are required to have worked for NASCAR.
The growth of NASCAR training facilities isn't limited to Charlotte.
Other Southern schools are adding new courses in mechanical engineering, aerodynamics, and even tire and rubber technology. Old Dominion University in Hampton, Va., recently began offering a motorsports-technology degree. And in January, the Virginia Motorsports Technology Center opened in Henry County, with a 50,000-square-foot, $1.2 million facility funded by Gov. Mark Warner's Motorsports Initiative, designed to boost the motorsports industry in his state. The center, which is near Martinsville Speedway, will house companies that build race cars and engines and will link with a new advanced motorsports curriculum at Patrick Henry Community College.