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Tech college grooms gearheads for pit crews

A Georgia technical college offers a select group of students a fast track to becoming skilled auto technicians for the racing world.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The auto parts specialty shops, racing schools and high-speed manufacturers riding the motorsports boom in north Georgia had a problem: Too few skilled technicians were primed to fill their growing demand for jobs.

They had no trouble finding willing employees in the speed-crazed area, where stock car racing has been a mainstay since bootleggers first turbocharged car engines so they could outrun prohibitionists.

Yet while many had the drive, they didn’t have the basic automotive skills to land even entry-level positions.

Enter Bud Hughes. The former high school auto shop teacher has tried to rev up the local scene since joining the faculty at Lanier Technical College.

The Motorsports Vehicle Technology program he steers offers a select group of students a fast track to becoming skilled auto technicians to work on the growing number of racecar crew teams popping up throughout the country.

He and John Glimmerveen, who wrote the book on speed-racing technicians, have helped usher 120 students through the two-year program since it started in 2001. Many of the graduates have landed jobs at local outfits or travel the country with midlevel racing teams. And the current 56 students are required to complete two internships before they move on.

To pull it off, the two have converted the school’s old automotive shop into a haven for speed freaks.

In one room, students are taught to take apart and piece back together Formula One-style vehicles and high-speed stock cars. Next door, they dive into the nitty-gritty of car manufacturing, learning how to fabricate and grind metal. Down the hall, they help forge new engines and test them for performance.

‘Cool’ banned
The instructors try to shed light on the work ethic, the grueling road trips, teamwork and high-pressure conflicts that come with the territory.

“The first word we ban is ‘cool,”’ said Glimmerveen, a bald Brit who gained his street cred as a former three-wheel racer and an engineer for several teams. “It’s not cool. It’s very hard work. But it’s very rewarding.”

While a handful of private groups offer similar program’s, Lanier’s offering is open to the public and cheap to boot. Increased demand has prompted the school to add night classes and a deal in the works with the Society of Automotive Engineers that would give Lanier the power to accredit race car technicians could lead to more students.

“You could spend two years doing nothing but engines and not even scratch the surface,” Hughes said. “Our job is to provide the right type of basic training.”

He likes to repeat that his business is as much about teaching students as building relationships with local industry leaders — a mantra that is almost palpable while spending the day with the instructor visiting the region’s racing hot spots.

At Elan Motorsports Technologies, a speed-racing manufacturer in nearby Demorest, Hughes is greeted by former students and current interns at every turn. He shares a chuckle with the latest wave of technicians as they craft chassis, pore over blueprints for next year’s designs, and pound together the final product.

Before Hughes’ program, it was “virtually impossible” to find ready-made technicians in the area, said Steve Jenner, the company’s project manager.

“It’s not like Europe where they’re far advanced. But we’re getting there,” Jenner said. “The students we’re getting come out with a basic knowledge. It’s a lot better than getting folks off the street or the dealership.”

They say the same at Road Atlanta, a 2.5 mile-racing track down the road where interns help staff the crews of the Panoz Racing School drivers.

Two women this year
As folks in the industry will tell you, cracking a crew for a professional racing team isn’t easy, even far from the limelight of NASCAR. And Jennifer Bruce, one of only two females in the program, said it can be even harder for a woman.

Bruce said she’s wanted to work on a crew team since she began drag racing at the local strip when she was a girl.

And now, months before her July graduation, the 21-year-old has earned a full-time gig with the Krohn Racing team, traveling with its four drivers as a specialist in repairing cracked and busted carbon panels.

The tech school’s program is a start, she says, but it won’t get you very far if you don’t have the heart, the desire to succeed.

Straining to speak over the whir of cars speeding around the track, she sums the dedication needed up with a smile.

“You have to be self-driven.”