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'It really is one of the best': CHHS students in CTE program assist local stock car racing team

Chapel Hill High School's NASCAR team smiles for a photo on Sept. 27, 2022. Photo Courtesy of Robert Ballard and Jennifer Walker

Chapel Hill High School’s automotive CTE program lets students assist Southern Wake Automotive's racing team to teach them about car mechanics and gain real-world experience — including racing in the Capital 180 at Wake County Speedway on Sept. 15.

Through the program, students work together to build a late model stock car, Robert Ballard, the CHHS automotive instructor, said.

“I noticed that my level-three student population was decreasing because of interest, so me and the students decided that we wanted to do something different,” Ballard said in an email. “My students wanted to race and build go-karts. In all my years of teaching and working, I have done nothing small, so we ended up turning that go-kart into a late model stock car.”

Joe Fitzgerald, a driver and co-owner at Southern Wake Automotive, said the students take tire temperature and pressure measurements, along with other mechanical responsibilities for the SWA racing team.

"Of course, the first time, they don't know what to do, they're looking at you for every answer," he said. "And then now, when the car comes in off the racetrack, they know exactly what to do."

The program initially needed to develop a way to get sponsorships and money from industry partners, so the CHHS Adobe class developed endorsement stickers for the race car, Ballard said in an email.

He said the program started hosting Cars and Coffee car shows, and raised $25,000 this academic year from all fundraising operations.

Local shops such as Southern Wake Automotive, Walker Auto & Truck/NAPA and Chapel Hill Tire have provided support by supplying funding for parts, entry fees, tires and fuel on a weekly basis, Ballard said.

Sara Walker, the vice president of sales and marketing for Walker Auto & Truck/NAPA, said the organization tries to support local high school and community college tech programs. 

"[Ballard] grew the program from a few kids to over 100, which is unheard of," she said. "I mean really, we have 74 stores throughout North Carolina in a lot of counties. So I'm pretty familiar with all kinds of auto tech programs, and it really is one of the best."

She said the car racing industry is aging, but when she sees the diversity and energy of students in the CHHS program, she can see that it's not just an old-school technical program.

"Hopefully it helps them give them a work ethic," Fitzgerald said. "I think it helps them in their everyday lives, quite honestly."

Ballard said the program hopes to introduce a second race car for its third season. Chapel Hill Tire recently donated $10,000 to the team in an effort to help fundraise for the new car. 

The CHHS automotive CTE program also plans to expand its courses to Carrboro High School and East Chapel Hill High School.

Andy Jenks, the chief communications officer for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools said he thinks the CHHS racing program is proof that continued investment in career and technical education is becoming a priority.

"It's a credit to the persistence of Mr. Ballard, and the students at Chapel Hill High School who have grown our automotive program into something that is capable of such high recognition," he said.

@DTHCityState |

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