NASCAR Tech Grad Builds Mazda Spec MX-5 Prototype

UTI Profile Image Universal Technical Institute Sep 30, 2019 ·

At Universal Technical Institute, our goal is to prepare students for a career they love. Each one of our programs is designed to provide students with a strong foundation they can build upon as they prepare to enter the workforce and chase their dreams.

From motorsports to the automotive industry to CNC machining, our grads can accomplish incredible things in their careers. Many blaze trails as they pursue their passion, like NASCAR Tech grad Ben Thrailkill.

Ben graduated from NASCAR Tech in 2015 and has since worked as a technician and fabricator at Panic Motorsports, LLC. Mazda Motorsports selected Panic Motorsports with Ben as its lead to assemble Mazda’s Spec MX-5 prototype race car, which was introduced to the world last month as Mazda’s progression to Spec Miata—the world’s largest race class. At just 23 years old, Ben has already made a big impact in the industry.

Keep reading to learn all about Ben, his career and the Mazda MX-5 project...

Meet Ben Thrailkill

Ben discovered his love for cars at a young age. Growing up, he regularly worked on cars and had a bad habit of breaking things while driving. When parts were broken, his parents wouldn’t just pay someone to fix them—he had to fix them himself, which became the basis for his automotive passion. 

In high school, Ben took welding and fabrication classes and continued working on cars. He’s always had a mechanical mindset, which, according to Ben, really gave him a jump-start in his career.

When an admissions representative from UTI visited his high school, Ben decided NASCAR Technical Institute would be a good fit. His prior experience, doing hands-on work in high school, gave him a great head start before attending NASCAR Tech, where he learned the more technical side of things.

The NASCAR Tech Experience

When speaking about NASCAR Tech, Ben shares, “You get out of it what you put into it.” His passion motivated him to apply himself both in and out of the classroom, helping him to become a well-rounded technician.

While he was a student, Ben worked in a body shop and also had a shop at home, where he was constantly working on cars and being exposed to a variety of challenges. Staying active in the automotive community and learning on his own before attending school allowed Ben to put the pieces together when he was at NASCAR Tech.

Ben describes his time as a NASCAR Tech student as “non-stop.” He was always on the go! Ben’s favorite part of the program was taking the performance engine classes, where he was able to get an inside look at what goes into the engines used by the industry today.   

Blazing a Trail in the Industry

After graduating, Ben landed a job with Panic Motorsports in West Columbia, SC, where he still works today. Panic provides Spec Miata and Spec MX-5 builds, project car builds, support, trackside service, arrive-and-drive programs, streetcar service, salvage and aftermarket Mazda Miata parts and more.

As a technician and fabricator, Ben does everything from diagnostic work, to running the dyno and assembling new race cars. Oftentimes, he will diagnose race cars that come into the shop, then pass them on to Panic’s other technicians for repair. With more complex repairs, Ben often completes them himself. “The sky is really the limit here as far as race cars go,” he says. Thanks to his background and on-the-job experience, he is able to do it all.

Throughout his time with Panic, Ben has also learned how to build cages. He worked with a cage builder from North Carolina and once he was comfortable enough, he started building cages in-house. The race car in the photo below belongs to Steve Bertok—President and Co-Owner of Panic Motorsports, who will be driving it in the SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Virginia International Raceway.

Image of Ben Thrailkill a NASCAR Tech grad working on a Blog Mazda Spec-MX-5-Prototype


According to Steve, who owns Panic Motorsports with his wife, Becca, Ben’s education, prior experience, and drive really set him up for success with Panic from the start.

“I didn’t need to supervise his every move from day one. I gave him some pointers on how I wanted things done, but I gave him all the rope he needed to do it his way, and he hasn’t disappointed yet,” Steve says. He works closely with Ben and relies on him as his lead fabricator. Ben receives high praise, not only from those at Panic, but from all of their customers as well.

During the last two years, Ben has done quite a bit of work for Mazda Motorsports, with whom Panic is closely tied. Last year, he and his teammates at Panic Motorsports worked with Penske Racing Shocks, Long Road Racing and Mazda Motorsports to conduct comprehensive track and shaker testing to develop the new shocks for Spec Miata.

Throughout this experience, he became familiar with the Mazda brand, which made it an easy decision for Mazda Motorsports to once again select him and his team to build the Spec MX-5 prototype race car, with Ben as the chosen technician to lead assembly.

About the Mazda MX-5 Project

Mazda Motorsports has become known for its success in amateur club racing and how it has been able to make the sport affordable and easily attainable for families across America.

Just this last month, Mazda unveiled the Spec MX-5, designed to be a middle-tier car that is a step up from Spec Miata but not quite the Global Mazda MX-5 Cup level. The goal of this project was to create a new avenue for racing enthusiasts to be able to compete by making it affordable for the average person to attain.

According to Josh Smith, Specialist for Technical Development at Mazda Motorsports and former employee of Panic, the Spec MX-5 is looked at as a true spec car and series where the competition is based on the driver behind the wheel, rather than the money spent on the car. While Panic Motorsports and Ben were responsible for the assembly of the test car, Josh led the testing and development of the spec car and rule set, which included selection of all partners and race parts.

As it happens, Josh and Ben share a similar background. Not only have they both been employed by Panic Motorsports, but both are also graduates from NASCAR Technical Institute!

Josh attended NASCAR Tech in 2002 and went on to gain several manufacturer certifications, including Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche and General Motors. “The broadness of everything I did helped shape me for where I sit today,” he says. Josh credits his education for being the foundation of his career success, as it has allowed him to become a well-rounded, detail-oriented professional in the industry, a trait shared by Ben and other NASCAR Tech grads. 

As a specialist in the motorsports department, Josh provides nationwide tech support for anybody participating in amateur motorsports in a Mazda vehicle. He also plays a key role in the development of new products and parts offerings, like the Spec MX-5 series. 

The Spec MX-5 was developed based on four pillars:

  1. Affordable: Spec MX-5 is targeted to be club racing’s next largest race class, following in the footsteps of Spec Miata. Mazda focused on keeping costs low in order to make the car attainable for those who love racing, but aren’t quite at the pro level.
  2. Tech-able: Extensive steps were taken to ensure the MX-5 parts don’t need additional development and can’t be tampered with, ensuring everyone is on the same playing field. This also helps with affordability, as drivers don’t have to spend money testing and developing their own components.
  3. Reliable: Mazda is known for reliability, especially when it comes to its road cars. Building on the reliability of the third generation MX-5 (2006-2015), Spec MX-5’s race components were developed with durability in mind so drivers don’t have to invest time and money working on the car every weekend.
  4. Fun to Drive: In its development, Mazda wanted to highlight the car’s attributes and keep it fun to drive. This was done by cutting excess weight to ensure nothing would slow the car down, while adding other performance elements such as Penske shocks and engine upgrades from ROUSH Performance and MAHLE.

Additional information on the MX-5 can be found on the Mazda Motorsports website.

What It Takes to Succeed in Motorsports

So what does it take to break into the motorsports industry?

According to Ben, it’s not enough to rely on the knowledge you have of the industry.

“Being willing to learn and listen is definitely one of the biggest things I see, especially as an employee now,” he says. “Listen to the guys who have the experience and have done it. It may take a little longer to do it this way, but there’s a good reason behind it,” Ben continues. It’s one thing to possess knowledge and skills, but another to have the passion and willingness to learn from others who have been successful in their career.

Additionally, Ben encourages aspiring technicians to not be afraid to try new things. Ben is primarily self-taught and has had a curiosity for how things work from a young age. Growing up and throughout his time at NASCAR Tech, he stayed busy experimenting and working on his own projects. This, in combination with his education, has allowed him to really accelerate his career and take on bigger responsibilities early on, such as building the Spec MX-5 prototype car.

The Sky's the Limit

So what’s next for Ben?

In the future, Ben hopes to continue perfecting his craft. Like any successful technician, he is constantly learning and looking for ways to improve. Building more roll cages and learning to tune more software programs are just some of the plans on his list. 

Ben also has a passion for drifting—which he hopes to continue pursuing in the future. He has won multiple drift events and was very successful in the 2018 Myrtle Beach Drift Points Championship. He is actively seeking 2020 Formula Drift Pro AM sponsors and is currently building a Chevy Ls powered Nissan 240SX as his competition car. Everything on the car, including the paint work, will have been completed by him. He has designed parts to increase the amount of steering angle that comes on a factory 240SX, and he also produces parts for the drift community on a small scale.

Overall, Ben’s career is a testament to how passion, determination, and the desire to learn can take you anywhere. We look forward to seeing all of the amazing things Ben will continue to accomplish in the future! 

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