MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Colin Fambrough spends much time showing off the large championship ring he earned last year as part of Brad Keselowski's pit crew.
Had it not been for the NASCAR Technical Institute, he probably wouldn't have it.
"I wouldn't be where I am without this place," said the 2005 NTI graduate. "It offered really good options for me. I was able to tell my parents, 'Look -- if the NASCAR thing doesn't work out, I've got all this training to go into a manufacturer program, and I can go to work for Ford or BMW or something like that.' So it gave me a viable career path if racing didn't work out. Fortunately for me, racing did work out."
Fambrough is hardly alone there. The No. 2 team's rear tire changer is one of several graduates celebrating the 10 years of the NASCAR Technical Institute, which has placed more than 5,000 of its former students in the automotive and motorsports industries since opening its doors a decade ago in a partnership between NASCAR and Universal Technical Institute.
"It's one of our best-kept secrets, almost, that people go up and down Interstate 77 and they see NTI on the side of the building," said NASCAR President Mike Helton. "But until you get inside and really see what UTI has made out of NASCAR Technical Institute, and now the heritage that it's built -- it's one of our best-kept secrets in some regard. The race shops, the race teams, the automotive peripheral businesses that complement NASCAR's motorsports efforts, certainly have recognized NTI as a place to go for resources when it comes to employees and everything."
NTI opened in 2002 as a joint effort between NASCAR and Arizona-based UTI, which operates 11 different technical campuses across the U.S. The 146,000-square-foot campus sits in the heart of racing country, in the same business park as race shops like JR Motorsports and Red Horse Racing. In August of 2003, it produced its first graduating class, and a week later had its first graduate find a job in the NASCAR industry, with the engine shop at Robert Yates Racing.
The anniversary brought together graduates, instructors, executives of UTI and NASCAR, and even drivers like Joey Logano and Sam Hornish Jr. to help celebrate the facility's first 10 years. "We owe a debt of gratitude to NASCAR," said John White, UTI's chairman of the board, "for partnering with us in creating a first-class educational facility that provides a broad-based automotive background."
Notable NTI alumni include Katy Renard, a 2005 graduate who now works as NASCAR's chassis pre-certification manager; Daniel Smith, a 2004 graduate who is now the rear tire changer on Tony Stewart's No. 14 car; and Fambrough, a native of Tyler, Texas, who became hooked on NASCAR after attending the summer 400-miler at Daytona International Speedway in 1999, and decided to attend NTI after seeing a commercial for the school on television.
At the NTI celebration, Fambrough was able to brandish a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship ring he won last year as part of Keselowski's over-the-wall crew at Penske Racing. Would he have one without the other?
"No. Absolutely not. No way," he said. "I absolutely would not have this opportunity. I know there are some people who have connections who can get in other ways. I came up here and didn't know anybody. I hadn't even met my roommate at the time -- I met him on Craigslist or something ?. I met him when I got up here, and then I knew the representative from the school I had spoken with. That was it."
For Fambrough and many others, NTI has provided an entry point. Just as important, Helton said, is the base of skilled labor the institute provides the NASCAR and automotive industries. Long gone are the days when race teams scoured the likes of service stations and automobile dealerships looking for mechanics with the potential to work on race cars.
"Teams go looking for talent, and they didn't know where to start at sometimes," Helton said. "You'd go to an automotive service center or a dealership and look for mechanics, but then you had to teach them the difference between a street car and a race car. UTI put the race car element into the automotive technology business, and made a pipeline for both sides to benefit from."
Fambrough broke in thanks to an instructor in his Fab 2 class who was a tire changer on Carl Edwards' car at the time. That connection got Fambrough a tryout at Roush, which just happened to be on a day when a very young Logano was learning pit-stop practice in preparation for a Hooters ProCup campaign. Roush didn't want to risk its Cup crew on the new kid, so the team tapped Fambrough and other over-the-wall prospects.
One thing led to another -- Fambrough volunteered to work with Logano at a test, and then volunteered to work at the shop. "About four months later they realized they weren't getting rid of me, so they started paying me," he said with a laugh. When Logano went to Joe Gibbs Racing to drive on the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Fambrough went along. He worked on Jimmie Johnson's crew in 2011 before signing with Penske and Keselowski's team in 2012.
While at NTI, Fambrough earned a broad-based automotive education that he intended to use in case working on a pit crew didn't pan out. In that eventuality, his plan was to get into a BMW program and work for the manufacturer as a technician. While at NTI, he learned everything from engine construction to how to fabricate brake ducts and noses for race cars.
"You learn everything," he said. "When you first start, you learn the basics of an engine and how it works and the parts and pieces. You move in to suspension. And then you move on to the oiling system. And then you move up to setups and aerodynamic and engine building, and everything. That's just on the manufacturer side. A lot of that stuff still applies to the NASCAR side. Race cars are very different, but you can still transfer some of that knowledge over."
NTI was designed to combine an automotive technology program with a NASCAR-specific motorsports program. Helton hears stories like Fambrough's, and knows that 10 years later the facility is still doing its job.