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Belmont Abbey College has a unique program for students interested in motorsports management.
BY ANTHONY FLOTT
BELMONT, N.C. — Perhaps the rush of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost felt and sounded
something like stock cars whipping by at 200 miles per hour.
might draw a nod of agreement from NASCAR aficionado William Thierfelder, the
Belmont Abbey College president who has led invocations for major races like
the Coca-Cola 600.
who has not been to that race … it is unbelievable,” said Thierfelder, whose
pre-race prayers come before 170,000 people. “It is an amazing, massive event.
I just don’t think there’s anything else like it.”
there’s nothing else like a Belmont Abbey program that’s making national
headlines for its inroads into NASCAR and other racing industries large and
small. Launched in 2006, the college’s motorsports management program is the
first of its kind in the country.
the reason for invocations by Thierfelder and Benedictine Father Placid Solari,
Belmont abbot, at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in nearby Concord, N.C.
do cars and a Benedictine Catholic college really mix? Absolutely, says
in the middle of the motorsports world and there’s a need and the program is of
real substance,” said Thierfelder, hired in 2004 as president of the
132-year-old liberal arts college in Belmont, N.C. “I didn’t meet with any real
resistance. Sometimes you get a little look from some of the monks who perhaps
would pick Shakespeare over motorsports, but even they’re good-natured and they
understand it and it makes sense.
what has surprised me the most is how successful it is and how solid it is and
how well received it is in the industry. I think we won’t see its full impact
and the fruit of it until classes start graduating.”
seeds were planted shortly after Thierfelder’s arrival when his booster
outreaches took him to Lowe’s Motor Speedway President Howard “Humpy” Wheeler
Jr., a Belmont Abbey College trustee who graduated from a prep school run by
Belmont Abbey in the 1950s. Not long into their meeting, Wheeler popped “a
great idea” on Thierfelder: having Belmont start a business management program
liked the idea instantly. Higher education was no stranger to motorsports,
though usually for engineering purposes. No one, however, offered a
comprehensive business curriculum. That left NASCAR and other motorsports
industries to find their business leadership from within.
would just sort of come up from inside the industry — drivers, whoever — and
they would end up in management positions,” said Thierfelder. “You’ll run out
of management personnel at some point, so having people trained in the industry
who have experience in it, understand it, so they come to it with a business
background … makes them that much more effective.
a real innovator and visionary kind of thinker,” he continued. “As it’s growing
and NASCAR moves to become international, it would be critical that they had
the talent at the management level to be able to take the industry there.”
was perfectly situated to educate such talent.
something like 3,000 businesses related to motorsports within a 50- to 70-mile
range of Belmont Abbey College, and the industry in North Carolina is a $6
billion industry,” said Thierfelder. “The average salary is about $70,000. From
a career standpoint it’s lucrative and something that would meet the needs of
students. It filled a niche that was much needed.”
school announced its program in early 2006 at a NASCAR-related media tour. Word
spread fast, and the novelty of the monks and motorsports mix attracted
national publicity, including a segment on “The Today Show.”
first class of about 20 students came in the fall of 2006, another 20 in 2007.
Some were existing Belmont students who switched majors. Others came from
around the country, some already boasting degrees. “Some people see it as a
real opportunity to break into hotspots,” said Thierfelder.
includes 19-year-old Jace Meier, a freshman from Las Vegas who made a beeline
for Belmont specifically because of its motorsports program.
want to make it as a race car driver, but there are tens of thousands of kids
out there who want to become race car drivers some day,” said Meier, awarded an
honors fellowship at Belmont. “Realistically, maybe one or two make it each
year. So those aren’t very good odds. If I don’t make it as a driver I want to
get involved in the business side of motorsports. I’d like to start my own
racing team or be a team manager or something along those lines.”
students in the program take the college’s standard core curriculum courses and
basic business classes before beginning the motorsports curriculum in their
fourth semester. Four classes ingrained in academic theory compose the bulk of
the program, dealing with marketing, racing management, team management and
project management assignment involved students planning multiple aspects of a
pit crew challenge competition from start to finish. Another class is
developing marketing plans for two drivers with Roush Fenway Racing. Students
also hear frequent lectures by industry experts, including Wheeler, executives
from Penske Racing and the Richard Petty Driving Experience, drivers and
program’s strongest appeal to students, though, might be its requirement of
three for-credit internships. One student has an internship with the NASCAR
licensing department. Another is working at the gallery of Sam Bass, a
internships give the student the opportunity to network and make contacts in
the industry,” said Traci Rishel, the college’s director of motorsports
management, “to be much more valuable coming out of school and hopefully have a
leg up finding employment in the industry.”
what kind of employment? Most of the students — about half of them female —
aren’t thinking of getting behind the wheel. Instead they’re pointing toward
public relations, marketing, sponsorship services, sales, financing,
accounting, facility management, event planning or hospitality.
though, is among those with dreams of racing. He has already done so, in fact,
having about 250 races at various levels under his belt since he was 12. That
includes a spot last season on the NASCAR Whelen All-American series,
comparable, he says, to Triple-A baseball.
one of its students driving led to one of Belmont Abbey College’s best
promotions ever — sponsorship of Meier’s car in the final race of the season at
Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The school painted Meier’s No. 55 Chevy black and
emblazoned its hood with the now-familiar “Got Monks?” slogan. The school also
provided fans with logo-branded shirts, hats and bumper stickers.
the end of the night you could look up in the bleachers and see thousands of
black hats that said ‘Got Monks?’ over it,” said Meier, who posted two wins and
finished second in the series — first among rookies. “Everyone really got
behind it just because it was so unique. I probably answered the question 500
times in two days, ‘What is “Got Monks?’” but I was okay with that. That’s what
I was there to do — promote the college.”
flat tire kept Meier from the win, but the school certainly finished first in
is planning to jump to a higher racing level this season, and because its
sponsorship price increases nearly sixfold to $600,000, Belmont Abbey College
won’t have the budget to sponsor him again.
its motorsports program, though, Belmont remains in the race. Thierfelder, a
former All-American and Olympic-qualifying high jumper, said there is a place
for Catholicism in NASCAR — and all sports.
opportunity in the business program is to bring something more than just
business, technology and experience,” Thierfelder said. “We can bring ethics,
morals and values of what it means to deal with a whole person, the idea that
sports should be a means of developing virtue. I’m hoping as a Catholic college
we bring that important extra to the process and the program.”
Anthony Flott is