DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mike Helton played a professorial role this week. He had a willing classroom of students. Two classrooms, actually.
Picture this: 19 bright, young minds -- half in Daytona Beach, the other half in Charlotte, involved via video conferencing from Charlotte -- zoning in on a NASCAR president-turned-teacher. Helton's subject of choice was history, complemented by well-timed displays of old-school business acumen.
The occasion was one of a series of "lunch and learn" events NASCAR is hosting this year for current participants in the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program. The gatherings are designed to provide interns with inside, high-level viewpoints on various aspects of the sport's business.
"We are excited at this level of quantity and quality, in terms of talent, involved in this program," Helton told his audience Monday afternoon at NASCAR's Daytona Beach headquarters. "We need fresh ideas. We need to keep making our sport exciting for our younger fans."
In addition to Helton, interns have lunched with several NASCAR vice presidents including Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's vice president of public affairs and multi-cultural development.
Jadotte's department oversees the diversity internship program, launched in 2000 to introduce professional opportunities available within the industry to college students from diverse backgrounds. The program has clearly established itself as a top professional development platform for college students across various disciplines within the motorsports industry -- while also preparing students who choose to go in a different professional direction. Which makes sense.
More than ever, NASCAR is about far more than turning left.
"We believe that fostering a truly diverse and collaborative working environment will make us a stronger organization," Jadotte said. "We hope to continue diversifying our sport internally by offering multicultural students the opportunity to take a peek under the hood of our league."
Nearly 300 students have come through the diversity internship program. And they have come from everywhere. A young man who identified his school as THE University of Texas. Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia State and Central Florida were represented along with Embry-Riddle University, located just a mile or so from Daytona International Speedway.
They are working everywhere within NASCAR. The company's legal department. Marketing and licensing. Digital and communications.
The words they heard came from a man who came up through the ranks of motorsports. A native of the Bristol, Va., area, Helton grew up influenced by the increasing popularity of Bristol Motor Speedway. His personal track included years as the public relations director and general manager at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In 1994 he joined NASCAR as vice president of competition; in 1999 he was named senior vice president and chief operating officer. In November 2000, with the creation of NASCAR's board of directors, then-president Bill France Jr. became chairman and chief executive officer with Helton moving into the role of NASCAR's president.
"I just like going to work every day," Helton said, explaining his attraction to his longtime motorsports career. "And I've always tried to keep the fans first and foremost in my mind."
After 45-minutes or so of providing the interns with a condensed history of NASCAR -- spiced by his personal experiences with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and his son, Bill Jr. -- Helton fielded a series of astute questions from the crowd.
Asked about the atmosphere of running a race as an official in the tower, Helton said "it can be as docile up there as the conversation we are having right now, at lunch. But it can change in an instant and get pretty active pretty quickly."
Regarding the state of the current NASCAR Euro Series, Helton pointed out that Bill Sr. had international aspirations starting with NASCAR's founding in 1947. 'What's happening today is the modern-day version of that," he said.
Will last year's prime-time Daytona 500 lead to other such scheduling? Helton was non-committal, but did emphasize "that we proved we could hold our own in that area on TV, next to sports like football and baseball."
Asked for his greatest piece of advice -- either given or received, Helton's response was immediate.
Nineteen heads nodded.
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