MARTINSVILLE — Justin Houck is on the fast track through college.
The race track, that is.
Houck, 20, leaned into the hull of a 1988 Fox Body Mustang, which he has welded, cut and bolted together almost from scratch, turning a metal shell into a car he hopes to drag-race someday.
“A lot of sweat and hours have been put into this,” he said.
That sweat and time will also earn college credits. Houck is a student at the Racing College of Virginia, which is the entirety of the motorsports program at Patrick & Henry Community College. The 20-year-old program teaches nearly 40 college and high school students racing industry skills, from working on cars to custom-machining parts to even working on a pit crew.
Students work in a large “flexspace” inside nearly 100,000 square feet of an industrial complex that once housed a high-performance race-car-building company. The buildings are part garage, part laboratory, part computer-science classroom. Skeletons of automobiles sit silently on lifts like Frankenstein’s race cars waiting to be brought to life. Instead of shelves of books, rows of tires line the walls. Instead of desks, students work at drill presses and welding machines.
The goal is to provide hands-on motorpsorts experience from sheet-metal fabrication to engine building to marketing. Students also have time to work on projects, such as Houck’s drag car, which is sort of like an independent study.
“I always dreaded school, but this isn’t school to me,” said Houck, who actually lives in Chesterfield County near Richmond, but spends four days a week living in a mobile home near Smith Mountain Lake in order to attend the Racing College.
Students who reach PHCC’s checkered flag with 67 credit hours – which include 14 hours of academic general studies courses — receive an Associate in Applied Science in Motorsports Technology degree.
The program isn’t just a glorified, highfaluting auto shop for gearheads. Students learn high-tech skills that are useful in industries outside of stock-car racing, such as welding, engineering, machining and even heating, ventilation and air cooling.
“Everybody who comes through here gets a job,” said Talmage Thomas, one of the program’s two full-time instructors.
Thomas and fellow motorsports instructor Denver Smith started working in the program after it had existed for a couple of years, but was still sputtering at the starting line.
“I used to joke that, when we started, we had a hammer and a screwdriver and the screwdriver was broken,” Thomas said.
Now, the Racing College is filled with machinery that could support a track-full of winning race teams.
“A lot of [NASCAR] Cup teams have the same equipment we use,” Thomas said.
The place is also the cleanest garage you’ll ever see.
Housing the Racing College of Virginia seems a natural fit for P&H. Motorsports hauls tons of cash into Martinsville and Henry County every year thanks to Martinsville International Speedway, which supports more than 2,900 jobs in the region and generates $170 million in economic impact, according to a 12-year-old economic impact report compiled for the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation. That’s the most recent data that measures the power of the speedway’s economic engine.
Not all those jobs are at the race track, as much of the economic impact comes in the form of tourism spending at hotels, restaurants and stores. The jobs perhaps offset some of the staggering losses the region endured in the 1990s and 2000s, when the furniture and textile industries — the economic bedrock of Martinsville for generations — sent those jobs overseas. Martinsville’s unemployment rate, once as high as 22% in 2010, sits at 5.9% as of February. That’s much improved, obviously, but still the third-highest jobless rate in Virginia.
In fact, the Virginia Racing College has made an economic impact on its own. The college was instrumental in bringing British-based race car manufacturer Radical Sportscars to Martinsville last year. The company plans to open a sales office and a fabrication facility adjacent to the college’s workspace. The wrench-ready workforce of college graduates steered the company to Martinsville, where 30 workers might be needed.
Even though the Racing College does not churn out stadium-sized graduating classes, the graduates do possess skills that are in demand.
“Not only racing, but hands-on technology skills,” said Smith, a Patrick County High School graduate who became an instructor after having been an engineering student at PHCC two decades ago. “Machining, welding … [students] get the basics of everything.”
As Smith gave a prospective student a tour of the FlexSpace facility, he noted the program’s level of training and high expectations for students. “We weld metal that’s as thin as Coke cans. When you can weld two Coke cans together, that’s precision,” he told the student.
Even though enrollees learn skills that can be used outside of motorsports, automobile racing is the primary driver of student interest. The Racing College of Virginia even sponsors its own late model stock car that races at South Boston Speedway and at Martinsville’s big late model race, the ValleyStar Credit Union 300, this September.
Racing College students work in the pit during South Boston races, preparing the car before starts and making repairs afterward. Because late model races are relatively short, they do not require the high-pressure, high-speed pit stops that are familiar in the NASCAR Cup Series big-league races, when cars are refueled and tires changed in a matter of seconds. Late model drivers might make one lengthy pit stop during a race to add gasoline or new tires.
South Boston driver Bruce Anderson steers the No. 73 Chevrolet — inspired by the yet-to-be-built Interstate 73 that Southside has long hoped would bring economic vibrancy to the region — a car he drove to a victory at South Boston in 2014 and a top-5 Martinsville finish.
“That’s really good for a part-time team,” Anderson said of the Racing College’s success on the track. The No. 73 car participates in only four or five races a year.
Racing College students are responsible for building the car and getting it race-ready, then for making post-race modifications to prepare for the next tour of the track.
“It’s a very unique program,” said Anderson, who has driven the 73 car for nine seasons. “Students of all ages develop all kinds of skills. When they set their minds to something, their dedication is second to none.”
Anderson has watched several students work in racing after obtaining their Racing College degrees. Alumni have worked for the likes of NASCAR driver Kyle Busch’s team, Michael Waltrip Racing and Jack Roush’s team, and others work as NASCAR officials.
“Seeing students come through and learning something to make a living in motorsports makes the program a success in my book,” Anderson said.
Numerous jobs are available in motorsports, even at regional levels of racing. D.J. Jack, who received his Racing College degree in 2016, works as a mechanic and fabricator for Nelson Motorsports in Bassett. He credits the program for helping him get his foot inside the garage door.
“The biggest thing was the relationships you make,” said Jack, a Bath County native who lives in Salem. Even as a teenager, Jack worked in motorsports, traveling with a sports car team and helping his father race at Natural Bridge Speedway and other tracks. Later, he worked with driver Butch Hamlet’s road course team.
“I had a background in racing, and [the Racing College] opened more doors,” he said.
Even the instructors had racing backgrounds. Thomas grew up traveling with his father, Wayne “Speedy” Thomas, a driver from Fieldale and team owner who won more than 200 races.
“When I was 10 years old, I thought everybody had a race car,” said Talmage Thomas, 56. “We didn’t take vacations. We’d go to a race, then come home. Wherever he went, I went with him. Kept me out of trouble.”
Smith, 38, “raced everything with two or four wheels … skis, too,” he said. A Massachusetts native, his family moved to Patrick County when he was 10. He continued to race before eventually taking engineering classes at the community college.
Thomas and Smith are joined by one assistant and one adjunct instructor who teaches engineering. Although the program’s graduation success rate is high, the college is small and attracts mostly young men, although several women have graduated from the Racing College.
“We’ve had only a few women, but they’ve all been standouts,” Smith said. “They make more money than I do.”
If nothing else, the Racing College provides one of the few opportunities for a student to say they spent the class attaching bung tips to traction bars, as Houck was doing on his Mustang.
“This is an amazing opportunity to be in this complex,” he said. “I want to take advantage of everything they have here. It’s an amazing program.”