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Got Wheels?

Monks and NASCAR Mix at Belmont Abbey

BY ANTHONY FLOTT

June 1-7, 2008 Issue | Posted 5/27/08 at 6:40 PM

 

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.

That 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.

“Anybody 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.”

And 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.

Thus the reason for invocations by Thierfelder and Benedictine Father Placid Solari, Belmont abbot, at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in nearby Concord, N.C.

But do cars and a Benedictine Catholic college really mix? Absolutely, says Thierfelder.

“We’re 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.

“Maybe 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.”

The 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 in motorsports.

Thierfelder 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.

“People 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.

“Humpy’s 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.”

Belmont was perfectly situated to educate such talent.

“There’s 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.”

The 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.”

The 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.

That includes 19-year-old Jace Meier, a freshman from Las Vegas who made a beeline for Belmont specifically because of its motorsports program.

“I 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.”

Belmont 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 motorsports fundamentals.

One 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 others.

The 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 NASCAR-related artist.

“The 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.”

And 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.

Meier, 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.

Having 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.

“At 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.”

A flat tire kept Meier from the win, but the school certainly finished first in promotional buzz.

Meier 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.

With 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.

“The 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 based in

Papillion, Nebraska.