Alumni Spotlight

In the Driver's Seat

The hardest part of auto racing is getting to the starting line. With help from the Chambers community, one student took the wheel to build a future in motorsports.

◆ 7 minute read

In the Driver's Seat

Motivation can come from anywhere – from a person, a word of advice, a dream. Sometimes you find it, and sometimes it finds you. It's like the engine in a car: without motivation, the wheels don’t move.

Nobody knows that better than Nicolas Caldwell, but his motivation came from within. It’s probably best to say that he’s self-propelled.

“I grew up watching NASCAR,” said Caldwell. “I went to my first race in 2009, and once you go to a NASCAR race, the whole experience takes you over. I’ve been addicted since then.”

Caldwell now races cars at the late model level, the motorsports equivalent of single-A baseball. It took him a long time and a lot of work to get there. In a way, his journey resembles a NASCAR race, returning over and over to the starting point – in his case, Morgantown.

Nicolas Caldwell with a NASCAR driver

“My family is originally from Georgia, but I grew up in Morgantown,” said Caldwell. “It kind of grew into my blood. Literally my entire family went to Georgia State, but I personally have more of a connection to WVU than anywhere else. I’m the first in my family to go to WVU.”

In another way, his journey is more like the Cannonball Run, winding through mile after mile of constantly-changing scenery, a grueling test of endurance.

A race like that takes a lot of grit – and Mountaineers have grit in spades.

“When people ask for my story,” said Caldwell, “I tell them first off that I had to pay my way. I was the youngest person ever hired at Chick-Fil-A corporate, at 18 years old. I was traveling around to help open new stores, taking final exams in Chick-Fil-A dining rooms.”

Enrolled in the Chambers College’s online marketing program, Caldwell found the flexibility of his professors and classes a great benefit as a working professional. However, he wasn’t satisfied by his career. He needed a change.

Cross-country races used to pair drivers with navigators who were intimately familiar with the course. Caldwell had a navigator of his own: Chambers alumnus Doug Van Scoy. A retired investment banker and member of the West Virginia Business Hall of Fame, Van Scoy is a dedicated mentor of young professionals like Caldwell.

“Nick is probably the most inquisitive, eager-to-learn person I've ever mentored,” said Van Scoy. “He's one of those people who has a desire to learn and look and explore. All I ever did was say ‘Good idea’ or 'Bad idea.’”

There are only two ways to turn: right and wrong. The restaurant world, for Caldwell, was a wrong turn.

“He just was trying to find out what he wanted to do in this world,” said Van Scoy. “The only advice I gave him was ‘Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s something that when you wake up in the morning, you can't wait to get there.’”

Taking Van Scoy’s advice, Caldwell got back on track – fast.

“I cold emailed the president of NASCAR, Steve Phelps,” said Caldwell. "He responded about ten minutes later.”

Phelps gave Caldwell passes to NASCAR garage areas, where he was able to network with team leaders. Caldwell managed to land an entry level job in the Xfinity Series, one of NASCAR’s second-tier racing circuits, when Phelps got in touch with another opportunity.

“He called me and said, ‘You’re going to come do an internship for the national sales department in Daytona this summer.’ I said, ‘Alright, I guess that’s what I’m doing.’”

That’s how Caldwell joined the summer 2023 cohort for the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program.

Photo of NASCAR Diversity Internship cohort

“I was on the national sales team, primarily focused on the Chicago Street Race. I was on-site the entire week, and anything you can think of, I was doing – delivering tickets, helping set up suites, you name it.”

Caldwell got hands-on experience coordinating a variety of other events as well, including the Clash at the Coliseum, and now counts many NASCAR employees among his friends. That internship opened the door to a new world, and soon, he’d found a position as the new business sales manager for Front Row Motorsports, securing sponsors for their racecars.

In addition, Caldwell’s gotten behind the wheel himself. In 2021, he began racing competitively, and has notched four races so far, with many more to come.

“Once you’re actually sitting in a real car, it’s a lot different,” said Caldwell. “The first time I did 70 laps, it was July, and I got out completely drenched in sweat. It’s definitely harder than I thought it would be, but it’s been fun.

“Obviously, racing is an expensive sport, and I’d never had the family means to do it. The only way I was able to get in a real racecar was to sell the partnership myself.”

His business education came in handy there too. In NASCAR, drivers need sponsors to climb the ladder. More money attached to a car means higher-level competition. Moreso than other sports, knowing how to do business is fundamental to an athlete’s success.

Photo of Nicolas Caldwell with his diploma

In December, Caldwell made another lap through Morgantown, receiving his bachelor's degree in marketing. But that isn’t the finish line – not by a long shot. He’s already pursuing a master’s degree in executive sports management at WVU, and has started to help current students break into motorsports, following the example set by his mentor, Van Scoy.

“Mentorship and coaching are a lot alike,” said Van Scoy. “The role of a mentor is to help people find what best suits their skills and abilities. But that doesn't mean you do it for them. They have to discover those things themselves.”

In other words, they have to take the initiative. That’s what Caldwell did.

“A huge part of society now is being able to tell your story,” said Caldwell. “If you can do that, the sky’s the limit.”

Nobody is telling Caldwell’s story for him. He’s in the driver’s seat.