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Lanier Tech students get experience with high-performance race cars in motorsports program
Nicolas Long, right, and Vince Hardy, both students in the motorsports vehicle technology program, work on a welding final in the motorsports vehicle technology lab at Lanier Technical College in Oakwood on Tuesday. - photo by David Barnes

It’s no secret most men would rather hang out around fast cars than sit in a classroom.

Derek Kennedy, a second-year student at Lanier Technical College, gets to do both. In fact, fast high-performance cars — along with engines, transmissions and a variety of automotive parts and tools — are his classroom.

There’s an Indy-style car in this classroom, an older version of those in the Indianapolis 500 and other races. It could still probably top 200 mph — with some work.

A tube-chassis stock car that would run in a lower-level stock race is also here along with a Mazda Miata adapted for club racing in pro events such as ones at Road Atlanta. There’s even a Ford Mustang the classroom received as a donation four years ago that’s now being restored for either road or drag racing.

“The way these cars are set up, they’re all strictly performance. They’re not to be driven to the grocery store and back,” Kennedy said. “Each car is set up to run that specific way, and that’s what I enjoy.”

Kennedy is a student in the motorsports vehicle technology program at Lanier Tech, which offers certificate, diploma and degree programs depending on the goals of the student.

“We get a little bit of everything here. And by exposing the students to more than just one car or type car, they really understand more about suspension systems, fuel systems, engines, and that breadth of knowledge helps them have a longer career in motorsports,” said Mike Schmidt,  program director, who was also a student and has worked in the industry.

“If you only learn one type of vehicle, you tend to have blinders on when looking at other sanctioning bodies and job opportunities,” he added. “We train them to be generalists, but they know what they’re looking at, know what tool to use to tear down the engine, know how to measure and inspect the components and reassemble the engine to specifications so it can perform to its full potential.”

Lanier Tech began the program in 1999.

“It really started out of a local need in industry to have motorsport technicians,” said Schmidt. “At Road Atlanta, we had the Panoz Racing School and other entities that needed qualified and skilled technicians who could work on their vehicles and had the skills necessary to walk into the job and learn the vehicle’s specific information.”

Schmidt said graduates find a variety of employment opportunities.

“You can take it as high as you want to,” Schmidt said. “You can finish this program and only work on the weekends at a local track or you can go out and run with one of the national teams — if you’re willing to put in the time and the effort — and make a pretty good living at it.

“When you watch NASCAR, those guys don’t work in a shop anymore, they’re professional pit crew guys,” he added. “But say road racing, we have two different students who have recently been in and graduated from the program … They both work on the cars when they’re in the shop, travel with the team and they’re going over the pit wall and working on the car during pit stops in the race.”

But the program is not limited to students who want to work on a racing team. Opportunities also exists in shops “where graduates take knowledge of high-performance cars and apply them to cars that ride on the street,” according to Schmidt.

“Your local speed shops are modifying street cars to either increase their performance or taking old cars and making them handle like new,” he said. “Those are things that would bleed over from the motorsports industry to the streetcar realm.”

Schmidt said students are usually those who like to see the results of their work.

“When you work on a car and you do a good job, that car is faster on the track and you can see it on the stopwatch,” he said. “They also want to be part of a team. They want to be part of a team atmosphere, doing something very challenging and be able to quantify it in some way so they can see that they’re constantly improving. I think that does draw a lot of the students particularly to this program.”

Internships are also a part of the experience. Kennedy is working in a marketing internship with the International Motor Sports Association. He was in Wisconsin over the weekend working at a race put on by the association. He said the IMSA is owned by NASCAR, but is a separate race series.

“Derek is working with IMSA now, and although he’s not necessarily turning wrenches on a car, his understanding of how the race industry works has really helped him in that job,” Schmidt said. “What he’s learned in that job will also help him no matter what he does in motorsports.”

Kennedy expects to graduate from the degree program in the spring and hopes to take his knowledge and skills to work to customize cars and possibly own a shop one day.

“I think I’d like to move more towards a custom shop where they do high-performance things,” said Kennedy. “Say someone would come to the shop and want a specific build or something done to their car and then I would be able to perform that — modify the car however they would want from the fabrication to the engine building up the wiring. I really like the custom aspect of that.”

Kennedy said said he has learned much in the program.

“There’s many different classes, and each class is so in depth so you get a very specific in-depth study on every single part whether it be the suspension, the fabrication, welding, setting up the suspension, tearing down the engine,” he said. “It’s very hands-on, and that’s what I like. I grew up working on my own cars and working on friends’ cars, so I kind of had the basic knowledge. The new thing I didn’t know how to do was working with composites and the fiberglass, the molds and the carbon fiber. That was one of my favorite classes. That was really cool.”

Schmidt said the program is limited to about 18 students. Most of those students are men, but there have been women in the program as well. He is planning to offer courses to dual-enrollment students by next fall.

“We are going to be looking for high school students who are already excelling in their studies, have some automotive skills and expertise already that want to learn more about motorsports and the applied engineering — that’s really what motorsports is,” he said. “They can come take some classes with us and see if this is something they might be interested in pursuing after they graduate.”