For veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or a severe brain injury, integrating back into a civilian environment can be a daunting task.
But for those interested in auto racing, a Salisbury-based dirt-track racing program can provide hope to those seeking to return to the life they knew before going to war.
Founded in 2009 by Sue Roberson and her husband, Matt Young, Manpower to Horsepower’s original objective was to create a ride-along program for the disabled. They soon discovered, though, that there were disabled veterans who weren’t satisfied with simply a ride-along program; they wanted to race.
This resulted in Roberson meeting with Richmond Gage, who headed the motorsports management and technology program at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s Concord campus prior to his unexpected death in December.
Roberson proposed a program to him that would allow veterans to earn a certificate or an associate degree while working on race cars. Gage liked the idea and made it a reality. Manpower to Horsepower’s partnership with the community college also meant it met eligibility requirements for the Veterans Administration’s vocational rehabilitation program.
“I want to give them their lives back,” said Roberson, who saw PTSD firsthand after her uncle completed four tours of duty in Vietnam. Her grandfather-in-law was also a Korean War Silver Star recipient.
“Other organizations help veterans, but I want them to be able to know how to survive. Whatever someone is going through, we all go through it together. That helps each one of them get better every day. They all feel comfortable in this environment because they understand each other.”
The first classes began at a shop in Mooresville in 2010. A short time later, Roberson and her husband took on a business partner they hoped would provide more opportunities for the students. Instead, it ended with a restructuring of the business, and they lost their home and the shop in order to keep the program alive.
The two then relocated Manpower to Horsepower to Salisbury, just 3 miles from the VA hospital there and within five minutes of RCCC’s main campus.
“The guys were having trouble getting to the VA from the Mooresville shop. They’re making all of their appointments now,” Roberson said about the program’s new location. “They stay well now because every week they give me their appointments. I know when someone has to be there, and I make sure they are there.”
Roberson, Manpower to Horsepower’s CEO and president, says alcohol and drug abuse aren’t tolerated and will result in dismissal from the program. Charles Lawing, a VA vocational rehabilitation counselor, works with the students in Roberson’s program, which was nominated for the 2013 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award. He says the individualized attention the veterans receive from Roberson provides them with a caring environment, one with a great deal of understanding which is important to someone with PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
Classes are now taught at the Salisbury shop by Randy Cox, who succeeded Gage as head of RCCC’s motorsports management and technology program. Roberson also encourages the veterans to obtain an associate degree in mechanics from RCCC.
When not in class or at appointments, Roberson’s 12 students are working on chassis, wheels, shocks, suspensions, transmissions and setups for the teams’ two dirt super late models. Roberson says they hope to compete in a total of 45 races this year, including the World of Outlaws World Finals Nov. 6-8 at The Dirt Track at Charlotte in Concord. A TV show that will tell several of the veterans’ stories also is in production.
Members of the inaugural class have now graduated with either a certificate or an associate degree and have found jobs, both in and out of motorsports.
“Everyone enrolled in the program has flourished,” Roberson said. “Probably 25 to 30 have either gotten a certificate or an associate degree. The ones who have finished the program and aren’t here anymore still call once a week.”
The program is open to men and women, and six months ago it began incorporating rescue dogs from high-kill shelters to be trained as companions to veterans with PTSD.
NCMA honors The Dirt Track at Charlotte
The North Carolina Motorsports Association’s Motorsports Industry Awards honored The Dirt Track at Charlotte by recognizing the World of Outlaws World Finals held each November at the facility.
The award recognized the growth of the World of Outlaws World Finals since the event was created in 2007. The dirt-racing spectacle has enjoyed sold-out crowds each of the last five years.
One of the most anticipated short-track events of the season, the World Finals at the four-tenths-mile clay oval crowns champions in the World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series, World of Outlaws Late Model Series and the Super DIRTcar Series Big-Block Modifieds.
Shaun Johnson, director of race operations at Charlotte Motor Speedway, accepted the award on behalf of The Dirt Track.