02 October 2013
KOKOMO, Ind. — Like many college freshmen, Conner Donelson balances a full schedule of classes with a job.
His is not your typical student job, though — his requires driving at speeds topping 100 miles per hour, battling for a checkered flag.
Donelson, 18, races sprint cars. But for now, racing has taken a back seat to his first priority – earning a bachelor's degree in business management from Indiana University Kokomo.
"I'm doing my best to be a student and to race at the same time," he said. "Before I started college, racing was all I thought about, 24/7. I didn't have much homework in high school. Now I need two or three hours a night to study. This comes first right now, and then racing will be the priority again once I graduate."
Donelson chose IU Kokomo for its School of Business and because he could stay home in Kokomo and continue racing. He's not certain what career field interests him outside of racing, but decided a business degree could give him flexibility.
"An IU business degree is well-respected, and gives me lots of options," he said. "I wanted to do something with a lot of numbers, with hands-on, group learning. I know what I like to do, and I have four years to decide what I want to do after college."
The season runs April through October, but even when he isn't racing, he is preparing to race. Each off-season, he and his crew, which includes his father and his uncle, take his car completely down to the frame and rebuild it, seeing where they can make improvements for the next season.
Racing is his family's tradition, as his father and uncle both began driving before they were 5 years old. They knew before he could even walk he would be a driver.
"When I was a baby, my dad put me in my uncle's race car, and they said I had this huge grin on my face," he said. "That's when it dawned on my mother that I was going to be a racer."
He started in quarter midgets when he was four, and later moved to junior sprints. He's driven sprint cars since his freshman year in high school, before he and his friends even had driver's licenses.
"That wasn't a rite of passage for me like most kids," Donelson said. "I've been behind the wheel and learning how to maneuver a vehicle all my life."
Along the way, he's learned important life skills, especially in communicating. Behind the wheel, he has to be able to talk to his crew and let them know what the car is doing, so he can perform at his best. He also has to talk to media after races, and has learned to speak to his audience.
"All of this experience really is helping me in my speech class," he said. "I've had to learn to all kinds of audiences, from my crew, to the media, and to people who don't know a lot about cars. I have to be able to read my audience and know how to say the right thing. I can apply that to my classes now."
Donelson hopes he may be able to continue into a career in racing, though he says he still has a lot to learn.
"My dream is to go big," he said. "If you're in this sport to do well, you want to go as far as you can. I love this, and I'm good at it. If I got the opportunity to go bigger, I would take it. There is a difference between a racecar driver and a guy who drives a racecar. I'm learning from my mistakes, but I'm not a racecar driver yet. I have talent, I have knowledge, and that will make me a race car driver one day."
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.