Watch them go: Students show raceway their drive

A pace car from Phoenix Raceway, host to NASCAR races this weekend, was on campus Monday as part of an ambassador project involving Colangelo College of Business students.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

They’re known as the Big Four – football, baseball, basketball and, to a lesser degree, hockey. Those are the four biggest team sports in America, and it’s not unusual for sports business students to try to get their feet in those four doors.

But the liaison between the Colangelo College of Business (CCOB) and Phoenix Raceway is on track to show that Grand Canyon University students can go beyond the balls and pucks to get winning experience in the real world. They can see it, and so can raceway officials.

Faith Clear (left) and Trevor Mikulin pose with the NASCAR championship trophy and the pace car. (Photo courtesy of Charles Hinken)

“I said this to a few folks last year when they presented the ideas for us,” said Hilary Adams, Director of Event Experience for the NASCAR West region. “I obviously was in college at one point, and at that time I was not near a NASCAR track. My program didn’t really talk about NASCAR. It was just NFL, MLB, NBA and college athletics.

“For me, it’s really cool to see that not only are the professors in the department embracing us as a sports facility and NASCAR as a sport, but the students are very engaged as well. They’re interested in what’s going on in the sport. Some of the students are fans of certain drivers. They have been able to really think outside the box and come up with ideas that we wouldn’t normally think about.

“And they want to come out and work on race weekend. It’s not just about, ‘Hey, we’re going to present an idea for you and it’s something we can throw in our resume down the line.’ They want to know how else they can help, and they want to see these ideas come to life.”

One of those ideas came to life Monday in the form of a Phoenix Raceway pace car parked right in the middle of the Promenade. It was there, along with the NASCAR championship trophy, to showcase one of four projects CCOB students have been working on during weekly Zoom calls with track officials as they prepare for this weekend’s races.

The students got the pace car rolling via an ambassador program with colleges, a market NASCAR wants to crack. It sure made an impression on Faith Clear, one of the student leaders of the project along with another senior majoring in business management, Trevor Mikulin.

Clear is from Colorado and describes herself as a diehard Denver Broncos fan. There aren’t any NASCAR races in Colorado – hence, there aren’t that many NASCAR fans there, either.

“I didn’t know a ton about NASCAR,” Clear said. “It really opened my eyes to that whole world and what goes on from an event-planning standpoint, marketing standpoint and just learning more about the sport itself.

“The people at Phoenix Raceway were so open and willing to help – just the fact that they carved out an hour of their time every week to talk to us and didn’t shut our ideas down. They welcomed them. I came away with actual event-planning experience and got to learn more about that side of sports.”

Mikulin falls into the same category and has come away from the experience with similar feelings.

A group of GCU nursing students got their opportunity to enjoy the pace car as well. (Photo courtesy of Charles Hinken)

“I wasn’t even remotely interested in NASCAR before this opportunity,” he said. “I never would have imagined myself working with NASCAR, but it’s the coolest thing. I’m so thankful to NASCAR for empowering us students to use what we’re learning in the classroom and actually put it into practice.”

The student projects were that much more critical to the raceway because the pandemic still is limiting attendance.

The first project, a watch party box, is designed to go straight to the heart of the matter: A lot of fans will have to stay home and watch the races on television. The idea is to give them keepsakes, such as T-shirts and keychains, they can wear or use.

“Students helped decide what would go in the box, then help put boxes together and get them shipped out,” Adams said. “The goal is that fans will post on social media and we can tag that.”

The ambassador program is designed to embrace college campuses far beyond GCU. To that end, the CCOB students contacted professors at other Arizona universities in the hopes of setting up a means of reaching out to their peers to build interest. It’s a work in progress, but “we were able to lay the foundation for it,” Mikulin said.

The third project is a mobile app platform onsite at the raceway. Last year, fans could take part in a scavenger hunt on their cellphones and collect badges to win a prize. This year, it will be a trivia-based game in the NASCAR app, and the students helped come up with questions and tiers.

Sample questions: For fans at the track, it could be something like, “What is the concession stand at Section 125 named?” And for people at home, it could be, “Who won the race in 2001?”

Finally, the students helped with activations for fans onsite – additional forms of entertainment that are socially distanced and maintain COVID protocols. The students came up with several ideas, such as photo opportunities the fans can put on Instagram or Facebook or coloring sheets of cars that younger fans can draw on and then see on display.

“The cool part about working with these students across all these projects is they’re obviously in school but they’re a little bit newer to our industry versus myself, who’s been working in the sport for eight or nine years,” Adams said.

“It’s great to get a fresh set of eyes on it. They’re the type of people who are currently looking for things to do in a COVID world. Engaging with them has been really fun because they just have a different take on everything.”

Not all of the students were NASCAR newcomers. One of them, Hunter Allen, caught Adams’ eye because he always had a flag for driver Chase Elliott behind him during the video conferences. Mikulin noticed the flag as well as another way Allen shares his fandom.

Dr. Mark Clifford was impressed by the students' initiative and drive.

“You won’t see that dude without a Chase Elliott hat on,” Mikulin said, laughing. “It’s glued to his head.”

The students who worked on the project will be glued to the track experience this weekend. Clear and Mikulin will be among the big group of students volunteering at the weekend races, and as Clear put it, “This is a great way to end my college career, getting that real-life experience.”

Dr. Mark Clifford, Assistant Dean and Director of Sports Business for CCOB, wants to make sure other students see the value in that experience and don’t necessarily put all of their career hopes in the baskets of the Big Four.

“The funny thing is, it hasn’t changed,” he said. “The majority of the students want to be in those four major sports, and they forget about NASCAR, they forget about youth sports, they forget about Major League Soccer.” 

And Clifford won’t forget what a pleasure it is to turn the students loose and let them create alongside the raceway. This is what the Sports Business program at GCU is all about – students getting out there and learning from the people who could be their bosses someday, and maybe someday soon.

“The students took the initiative, followed through and worked directly with Phoenix Raceway on this,” Clifford said. “These students have done an amazing job.

“I think that’s the key for our students – to continually think about how to be innovative, how to reach this demographic with the different challenges they face. I think it’s really neat that the organizations are digging into that perspective to see what kind of ideas these students come up with.”

It made an impression on the track officials, too.

“I just want to say thank you to the program for all of their help,” Adams said. “We’re putting on an event for a ton of fans here, and we’re even doing things for fans who aren’t attending. To have some other helping hands has been a huge help.

“And the college demographic is always a market we’re trying to break into. To see students engaging with the sport and engaging with us is so refreshing for me to see.”

So now they know: When it comes to GCU’s Sports Business program, there’s much more than the Big Four. There’s a big sports world out there, and it’s up to students to race right into it. That’s the name of the game.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: Students rev up their marketing ideas for raceway

GCU Today: Panel of women business leaders sets the pace

GCU Today: Drivers' visit fast-tracks knowledge of jobs in racing


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