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Racing college touted
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Chris Parker (second from left), with Patrick Henry Community College, shows mechatronics equipment in the college’s motorsports facility to Mary Rae Carter (center), special adviser to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for rural partnerships, and Elizabeth Creamer (second from right), McAuliffe’s adviser on workforce development, during a tour of the facility Tuesday. Looking on are college President Angeline Godwin (left) and Rhonda Hodges, the college’s dean of workforce development and continuing education. (Bulletin photo)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The motorsports technology program at Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) could be a driving force that helps Henry County-Martinsville race toward a brighter economic future, according to two state officials.

Mary Rae Carter, a county native who now is Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s special adviser for rural partnerships, and Elizabeth Creamer, McAuliffe’s adviser on workforce development issues, toured the program’s facility in the Patriot Center at Beaver Creek industrial park on Tuesday.

Few community colleges, especially those of PHCC’s size, have developed entire academic programs around such “a narrow industry” as motorsports, college President Angeline Godwin told the state officials.

Because motorsports is “one step above what community colleges normally do,” Carter said, “... it’s going to attract the attention of industries” wanting to locate where workers have high skill levels.

Workforce skill levels are one of the top things that companies take into consideration in deciding where to locate new plants, she said.

Local economic developers in recent years have placed emphasis on trying to attract “advanced manufacturing” companies with fabrication processes that are heavily computerized. Examples of such companies already in the area include Eastman and RTI International Metals.

“Motorsports engineering is just advanced manufacturing applied to the motorsports industry,” Godwin said, and many of its components apply to modern manufacturing in general.

Therefore, experience with motorsports could help people get jobs in other types of high-tech industries, she indicated.

The curriculum of The Racing College of Virginia — as the program officially is known now — involves mechatronics, which Godwin described as a mix of “mechanical engineering and control and computer systems.”

The program enables students to earn certification in mechatronics through Siemens, a multinational electronics and engineering company. Godwin said the certification is “an industry-recognized credential around the world.”

Regardless of what industry a worker is in, he or she needs to understand things involving mechatronics, such as quality control, computer processes and how engineered systems work, she said.

Creamer said she likes the college’s motorsports facility because “it doesn’t look like classroom space” but rather a real modern industrial environment.

Carter called it futuristic.

Overall, Creamer said, the program is “what we (state officials) want workforce development to be.”

Godwin asked Carter and Creamer to encourage their colleagues in Richmond to put more workforce development funding toward efforts to train students in actual work environments rather than classrooms.

That is the future of job training, she said.

PHCC’s motorsports program has existed since 2005 at the Patriot Center facility. The college bought the facility from Arrington Manufacturing last year for $234,443.

Arrington, which builds engines and custom performance parts for certain specialty vehicles, still occupies space in the building.

Eric Hruza, Arrington’s president and CEO, noted that the PHCC facility has state-of-the-art technology. An example he mentioned is equipment that measures the amount of pressure in an engine’s combustion chamber.

It is “very rare” for an automotive-related educational facility to have that, he said.

According to its website, The Racing College of Virginia provides hands-on education in high performance racing engines and chassis fabrication, giving students the chance to build race cars in the same way that crews do so on the NASCAR circuit.

Graduates of the program now work for NASCAR, Godwin said. She did not have an exact number.

PHCC Vice President for Institutional Advancement Chris Parker estimated the program will have about 60 students for the coming fall semester.

Of those, about 20 to 25 will be Henry County-Martinsville high school students dually enrolled at PHCC, he said. The rest will be students ranging from the traditional college age (18 to 24) upward, he added.

Students from seven states are enrolled in the program, Godwin said.

Jeff Cessna of Roanoke told Carter and Creamer that he “always loved working on cars and going to the race track,” which spurred him to enroll.

Creamer said she is impressed that the program attracts students of all ages. She and Carter inquired as to whether it is hard to attract younger students.

High-schoolers are interested in the program because it is an emerging career field, but parents sometimes must be persuaded that there are job opportunities in the racing industry, according to Parker.

Students who complete PHCC’s program can move onto a four-year degree program in motorsports engineering at Old Dominion University, Godwin said.

 

 
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