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Lincoln’s Low-Key Racing

Though Lincoln County cannot brag like Iredell about having a town whose official motto is Race City USA or boast like Cabarrus about having Lowe’s Motor Speedway, it has a stealth presence in the racing world. In anonymous-looking garages tucked away on the western shores of Lake Norman, a string of mom-and-pop businesses make race cars and the components that help teams win. Max Crawford builds top-of-the-line Daytona prototype race cars. Bob Russo makes the plastic windshield coatings crews tear off during pit stops to keep a NASCAR driver’s view clear. And Ken Thompson, one of the premier crafters of race car exhaust systems, creates his magic from an unmarked shop behind his Denver home. “They don’t put up a sign,” said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, Lowe’s Motor Speedway president, “because all the race people know where Max Crawford is and Kenny Thompson is.” Lincoln County’s economic development leaders would like for others to follow that lead. As North Carolina draws the racing crowds and their cash, Lincoln would like more of the action. The disparity is highlighted this week as thousands of fans swarm to the Charlotte area for races at the speedway. Most of the crowds and traffic have jammed Mooresville and Concord, while it’s pretty much business as usual on the other side of the lake. Lincoln County commissioners have discussed adding services to the local airport to snag some of the race teams and businesses on their side of the lake. They haven’t taken any concrete steps to win a bigger slice of the state’s $1.5 billion motorsports industry, though. Tracy Trotter, who owns Calico Coatings, said he’d welcome more businesses to Lincoln, even if that means more competition. But until it comes, he’s enjoying Lincoln’s privacy, away from eager fans’ curiosity and race spies’ snooping. Growing up in Houston in the 1970s and ’80s, Trotter felt the allure of North Carolina tug on him even as a teenage race fan. “I knew if I wanted to be in racing I had to move to North Carolina,” said Trotter, now 38.But when he wanted to start his company, Calico Coatings, it was Lincoln County, not Mooresville or Concord, that won him over. His company coats parts for about 700 engines a month with materials like those on nonstick fry pans to reduce heat and friction. But he bans teams and fans from his shop; his clients don’t want their competitors knowing who they are. His staff delivers the completed parts. It’s worth fighting traffic to be away from the prying eyes, he said.

Privacy plus proximity also attracted Max and Janice Crawford to Lincoln County. They found the Denver area ideally situated for them to make race car parts and the Daytona prototype race cars for the Grand American Road Racing Rolex series.

The New Zealand natives used to have to travel all over the world to test their vehicles and parts. But with the AeroDyn wind tunnel in nearby Mooresville, they said they now have everything they need: good universities, a talented work force and privacy. The secret behind their business involves the same technology found in space shuttles. They take carbon fiber, Kevlar and sheets of aluminum pocked with honeycomb-shaped spaces, then shape them into strong, lightweight components such as cooling ducts, fan belts and carbon dashboards. But their business depends on their ethics and their confidentiality, Janice Crawford said. So they, too, close the shop to outsiders when they are making top-secret parts. “Lincoln County really has a lot of potential, you know,” she said. “It’s convenient. It’s close to Charlotte. It’s a little quieter on this side of the lake. It’s been able to afford us some of the privacy we need.” Lincoln County used to hold more sway in the racing world. The county got its first race team in 1981, said Ken Thompson. Other teams soon came to the area. In the 1980s, east Lincoln had more race teams than Mooresville, he said. But as the industry boomed in the state over the next 15 years, he said, teams moved to Mooresville in Iredell County to be closer to their suppliers, the new wind tunnel where they can simulate track conditions and other high-profile racing businesses. Then Cabarrus County started to draw away some of the business away from Iredell when it opened its airport in 1994. These days, the Charlotte region claims the title of racing capital of North America, with 400 motorsports-related businesses in the area and 90 percent of NASCAR teams based within 50 miles of the Charlotte region, according to the Charlotte Regional Partnership. Last weekend’s NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge alone at the speedway was expected to pump $94 million into the area economy, according to a report from a UNC Charlotte economist. Lincoln has a healthy cluster of businesses, though how many isn’t clear. When the Lincoln Economic Development Association assembled a directory last year of local businesses in the racing industry, it found 20 businesses. This year, it found 26.

“Even though we’ve been looking for almost a year, we’re still finding companies,” said Barry Matherly, the association’s executive director. “I don’t think we know the full extent.” In addition to the businesses, some racing folks in the area estimate 200 to 300 race-team workers live in Lincoln County, even though that means commuting to the other side of the lake for work. Matherly hopes to increase the numbers by attending national racing conventions next year to attract more businesses. He has already talked with some Mooresville shops that are considering moving to the quieter side of the lake.

But with the teams come the fans. And so, potentially, go the secrets. The Crawfords, however, are ready. Signs at the shop now declare “No Photographs Allowed” and “Authorized Personnel Only.” Economic Impact:

• More than 400 motorsports-related businesses are in the Charlotte region. • 90 percent of NASCAR teams are based within 50 miles of the Charlotte region. • 2,750 people are employed locally by race teams.

• Race team employees make an average of $69,000 per year.