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Lanier Tech students getting hands-on training at Petit Le Mans
Jon McLeod, a current student at Lanier Technical College, works on a car with Comprent Motor Sports for the weekend at Road Atlanta for Petit Le Mans in Braselton Wednesday. McLeod is enrolled in the motorsports program at the college, which emphasizes a hands-on approach to learning. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Nearly a dozen Lanier Technical College students are busy revving their engines this week even though they have yet to receive the checkered flag to start the race.

About one-third of Lanier Tech’s motorsports students are getting greasy as behind-the-scenes interns at the world-class sports car Petit Le Mans race. The hands-on training is required as they work toward earning an associate degree in motorsports technology.

Bud Hughes, director of the motorsports vehicle technology program at Lanier Tech’s Oakwood campus, said his students learn their craft best when huddled around pricey race cars under the tents surrounding the track at Road Atlanta in Braselton. He said his students often intern with local L:1 class sports car preparation teams that keep the ground-hugging cars in good shape before and during the races.

Since the inception of the Oakwood school’s program in 1999, Hughes’ graduates have gone on to work on race cars bearing names like Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Audi. On the track, Hughes said the multi-million dollar sports cars can clock in at speeds more than 200 mph.

"A lot of these guys started out cleaning tires and wheels for the teams and worked their way up," Hughes said. "This is the top level of racing. ... You take something that’s a pile of parts on a table and put it together to produce 8,000 horsepower."

He said his students, both boys and girls, learn the lessons of changing tires, fixing chassis and performing high tech body work at the school’s shop in Oakwood. He said the real test is when students apply those lessons under the watch of those for whom they’re interning.

Casey Free, 20, is one of Hughes’ students and said he signed up for Lanier Tech’s program after seeing a billboard advertisement for the school from the front seat of a drag car set to take off on the Atlanta Dragway. Free is in his second year at Lanier Tech, and has spent the better part of this year working for Kevin Kloepfer, owner of Comprent Motor Sports in Athens.

In that time as an intern and paid employee, he has accompanied the team of 18-year-old driver Jonathan Goring who is leading in the six-part IMSA Lites Series. Free has traveled with the team to multiple races including the first race in Sebring, Fla. and to the fifth race at the Petit Le Mans. Free has built engine mounts for cars and learned the intricacies of welding and sheet bending. These are all skills necessary for fixing up a quality sports car when a driver gets in a crash.

"If you wreck a car, you’ve got to stay up to fix it until it gets done pretty much," he said. "It’s been what I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. ... I want to work for myself, eventually. I want to build my own cars and sell them."

Hughes said he helps graduates of Lanier Tech’s motorsports school gain the contacts necessary to work in various fields of racing, including NASCAR and drag racing.

"We had a student on each NASCAR championship team last year," Hughes said. "From Oakwood, Ga., that’s amazing."