With elementary schools to colleges and universities across the country starting classes in the next several weeks, thoughts for younger and older students alike often turn to one topic: What do I want to be or do when I grow up?

While common answers often revolve around sports, those responses are almost universally centered around on-the-field achievements. Knocking in the winning run … scoring the final goal … making the last shot … being first across the finish line.

For many, those athletic dreams fade with time but the opportunities to be a professional in the sports world remain plentiful, with countless colleges and universities providing sports-related majors, courses and internships aimed to help students achieve those career aspirations.

During its June 2021 NASCAR tripleheader weekend, Nashville Superspeedway offered dozens of undergraduate students, real-world experience behind the scenes at a national sports event. From interviews with hardcore racing fans in the campgrounds to hospitality and customer service responsibilities, these students received a taste of what a career in sports entails during three days of racing in Middle Tennessee.

"This was our first NASCAR experience," said Carmen McKell, the director of the Center for Data Science Analytics at Houghton College in New York.

“Regular fans often don‘t get to see all the detailed work and planning done ahead of the race to get organized. Long hours of work are required to anticipate and plan for the optimal fan experience. Fans also don‘t realize the amount of communication and coordination that happens during the event to respond to the fans and ensure everything runs smoothly.”

The Houghton students, all with backgrounds in data science, computer science and psychology, worked with Nashville Superspeedway‘s ticket office staff to not only assist fans at the race, but also to collect responses from campground customers about their race-weekend experience. The information gathered will assist the Nashville staff in developing incentives, programs and fan offerings for future events.

Like many newcomers to the sport, the Houghton students received a warm welcome from NASCAR‘s faithful followers.

“This event was unique in that our students were able to interact directly with fans to better understand their experience,” McKell said.

“The fans were so enthusiastic and friendly, and they made the students feel like they were part of the event. Occasionally, the fans invited the students into their campers to conduct interviews out of the sun. Fans were happy to see students gathering their feedback.”

Fifteen students from Kent State University in Ohio spent the weekend concentrating on customer service tasks, including coordinating movement in Nashville Superspeedway‘s busy elevator lobby.

“For the majority of the KSU students this was their first NASCAR experience,” said Mark R. Lyberger, director of Kent State University‘s Center for Sport & Recreation Development.

“Exposure to the environment, location and nature of activities surrounding the event provide valuable experience for students.”

Students in Kent State‘s program had previously worked at the 2021 NFL Draft in Cleveland, while students within the Houghton program had also gained experience at Super Bowl 50 in 2016 in California and professional golf events.

For more than a dozen students at the University of Tennessee at Martin, their Nashville Superspeedway hospitality work added to a long list of the program‘s sports business resume, including Super Bowls and spring training assignments with the Houston Astros, Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals.

“I encourage students to set individual learning goals prior to the experience,” said Dexter Davis, associate professor of sport business at UT Martin.

“We spend time every day after the experience in active reflection on how the day‘s activities helped them achieve their goals and what they can do the next day to enhance their learning.”

Many students were asked to submit their thoughts on their weekend work and it quickly became apparent that flexibility and keeping spirits up can go a long way toward success in the sports/entertainment industry.

Among the comments received:

  • “I did not know a lot about NASCAR before this experience, but now I think it‘s so cool and I‘ve become a fan myself.”
  • “It was great to be able to interact with various professionals that work in many roles in NASCAR. Many students that we brought got to interact and network with these professionals, and that may have been the highlight of our experiences at the track.”
  • “I gained a lot of respect and appreciation for the Nashville Superspeedway staff who work behind the scenes with so many moving parts. They were great role models for us.”
  • “The best part of this was getting to experience such a big event from behind the scenes. … I‘ve gained a respect for how big the industry is. It felt cool being a 'behind the scenes person‘ during the weekend.”

Nashville Superspeedway is continually gathering contact information for student groups and other organizations who are interested in working upcoming events on its campus. No matter the role, the contacts made and the knowledge gained can be invaluable.

“If one student is lucky enough to benefit from the opportunity, it may be priceless,” Lyberger said.

To learn more about working during the 2022 NASCAR tripleheader weekend, contact Ashley Shores, Nashville Superspeedway‘s Public Relations and Community Engagement Coordinator, at [email protected].