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Leaders work to bring high-performance automotive technology school to Newton

Pit crews work on James Buescher's #31 Chevy Silverado prior to a Craftsman Truck Series race last season at the Iowa Speedway.  Community leaders hope to bring a tech school to Newton to train future pit crew members.
Pit crews work on James Buescher's #31 Chevy Silverado prior to a Craftsman Truck Series race last season at the Iowa Speedway. Community leaders hope to bring a tech school to Newton to train future pit crew members.

For a little more than a year, a group of Newton business and government leaders have been working quietly on a plan to bring a new kind of economic driver to the community.

A driver with four fast wheels.

At 4 p.m. Monday, the group will present its plan, as well as the progress made so far, to the Des Moines Area Community College Board of Trustees. The goal: to partner with DMACC to bring a high-performance automotive technology school to Newton.

“Our vision is to develop a low-cost, automotive technical school focused on the motorsports and high performance industry and based in Newton,” Skiff Medical Center CEO Steve Long — himself a motorsports enthusiast — said. “And, we want to provide an expanded post-secondary education presence in Newton, which will serve as a catalyst for the economic development of high-performance automotive-related industries in Newton and the surrounding area.”

So far, the project has gotten past the first level of feasibility studies, conducted by the senior consulting class at the University of Iowa. That study validated both the concept and the market for a high-performance automotive technology program in Newton.

The students researched existing programs, the general racing industry in the Midwest and DMACC’s existing automotive technology program. They also recommended:

• a strong relationship between the program and Iowa Speedway, calling that relationship critical;

• recruitment of a nationally recognized program leader to ensure its success; and

• flexible and creative degree options.

The University of Iowa’s MBA Consulting Class in Des Moines is now studying the operational capability and demand feasibility of the project. The results of those studies are expected in mid-April, to be followed by studies of the project’s financial feasibility and economic impact.

Long is joined in the quest to bring the high-performance automotive technology program to Newton by Mayor Mike Hansen, Director of Finance & Development Bryan Friedman, Development Specialist Craig Armstrong, Newton Development Corporation Executive Director Frank Liebl, Jasper County Economic Development Executive Director Chaz Allen, Greater Newton Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Darrell Sarmento and Iowa Speedway President Jimmy Small. They all will be on hand for the presentation Monday afternoon at DMACC.

As part of the development of their proposal, the group took a case study from Martinsville, Va., a community very similar to Newton in many ways.

Martinsville has a population of 13,800 people and is located in Henry County, Va., which has a total population of about 54,000. From 2000 to 2010, it experienced a 6.5-percent loss of population, the result of the loss of many thousands of manufacturing jobs beginning in the 1990s.

It is home to Martinsville Speedway, which hosts several NASCAR events each year, including two Sprint Cup Series races. It also happens to be home to one of the nation’s leading high-performance automotive technology schools.

In a 2009 article published by Circle Track Magazine — and cited by Newton’s community leaders — Patrick Henry Community College Dean of Applied Science & Engineering Earl Dodrill wrote about the impact that school’s high-performance automotive technology program had for the community. He said the college acted on the idea that “the nation’s fastest growing sport would create jobs.”

“Already, positive impact has been experienced. Regional dirt track and Late Model stockers have taken courses to improve their competitiveness. From engines and body fabrication to marketing and managing a motorsports business, they are reaping the rewards. Others have found employment in the industry on teams and in related businesses. Community and individuals have been rewarded by the reality of the college’s dream come true.

“The motorsports industry has provided the economic engine to drive the opportunities and employment for these and several others. The community is preparing itself for race teams, engine builders, fabrication shops, and many other related motorsports businesses to locate. You might say Martinsville is ready to go racin’ with some proven capable crewmembers.”

The Newton leaders say the city is poised to do the exact same thing. They point to the city’s Comprehensive Plan and the efforts already being made there, as well as Newton’s location in relation to American motorsports.

Within a five-hour drive of Newton, there are nearly 300 racing facilities, which constitutes nearly one-fourth of the nation’s motorsports facilities. That same five-hour radius represents 12 percent of the U.S. population, meaning Iowa is at the center of a hotbed for motorsports enthusiasm in the country.

Anyone who has lived in Iowa for a prolonged period of time probably already knows that, though. The Hawkeye State could just as easily be called the Burnt Rubber State: per capita, Iowa has more motorsports facilities than any other state.

In fact, there are 11 race tracks within a one-hour drive of Newton alone, including two of the crown jewels in all of motorsports: Iowa Speedway and Knoxville Raceway, home of the annual Knoxville Nationals.

“Boone Speedway hosts the IMCA Super Nationals each year with more than 800 race cars, and the Newton Kart Klub hosts the International Kart Federation 2-Cycle Nationals each year,” Long said. “Every kind of motorsports, including motorcylces, truck and tractor pulling, figure-8 racing — even lawn mower racing — is represented in Central Iowa.”

That’s not the only reason why the Newton leaders feel a high-performance automotive technology school would be a great addition to Newton, though. It’s a growing industry within the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

National employment of automotive technicians overall is 725,000, and it’s expected to grow by an additional 125,000 jobs by 2020. In addition, the BLS found the high performance job market offers an “extensive variety of opportunities.”

While the $13.5 billion-a-year industry offers careers in performance engine building and testing, chassis building and modification, and graphcis and after-market accessories, the BLS also noted opportunities that exist within race sanctioning bodies, like NASCAR. A formal, post-secondary education in the profession substantially improves one’s job prospects.

The average salary for someone working in the auto industry is $38,500 with those in the top 10 percent of the field earning nearly $60,000 a year. Those working in the high-performance and motorsports side — for skilled workers — range from $45,000 a year for machinists to $78,000 a year for mechanical engineers.

That’s where the private, for-profit education industry has tried to turn its attention. High-performance automotive technology programs are now offered by Universal Technical Institute, Vatterot College, Lincoln Technical Institute, ITT Technical Institute and WyoTech.

Diploma programs range from $11,000 to $25,000. Degree programs range from $31,000 to $43,000 at those schools. DMACC offers automotive diplomas for $10,500 to $16,000 and degree programs from $15,000 to $25,000.

The Speciality Equipment Marketing Association — the industry association for high-performance automotive technicians — lists 54 member businesses in Iowa. These include Parker Performance in Newton, DeeZee in Des Moines, Karl Performance in Ankeny and Van Sant Enterprises in Pella.

Most community colleges in Iowa offer automotive mechanic programs, but none of them offer high-performance automotive technology training. DMACC, with the proximity of Iowa Speedway, could provide both diploma and degree programs in high-performance automotive technology to occasional, part-time, seasonal and full-time students.

“Newton is the ideal location in the Upper Midwest and Iowa. We have Iowa Speedway — no one else has this — as well as low-cost property available for the development of related industries,” Long said. “The City of Newton has its Comprehensive Plan in place and a track record of economic development.”

“The auto technology field is a growth industry, and low-cost motorsports training is the niche DMACC can fill,” he added. “DMACC has the organizational structure and a core automotive tech program already in place, and Newton has community leaders with the desire to make it happen.”

“That’s a convergence of elements that cannot be duplicated in any other Iowa community.”

Daily News Editor Bob Eschliman may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at

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