Getting vets in the race

Sue Roberson has learned that motorsports can have healing powers for disabled veterans.

Founder of the new Manpower to Horsepower program, Roberson has seen how working on and riding in racecars can be therapeutic for veterans, who sometimes are so traumatized they won't talk about their experiences in war.

"They become completely different human beings" when they're involved with racecars, Roberson said. "They desire to get up every morning and do something that they didn't think they could do any longer."

Manpower to Horsepower provides everything from ride-alongs in dirt-track cars to opportunities to work on cars at Roberson's company, SMP Motorsports. Roberson has extensive experience in the industry, including as a driver and team owner and work in the NHRA Funny Car series.

The nonprofit agency sprouted from a desire to help disabled veterans "enjoy motorsports like all of us do," Roberson said. She said many disabled veterans are dealing with the loss of limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder and adjusting to not being in a life-or-death situation daily.

"We look past any of the injuries," Roberson said. "It kind of gives them a little hope that everything is not as bad as it seems right at the moment."

She began with a wheelchair-accessible ride-along program, which allowed even veterans with severe disabilities to ride in a racecar. Roberson hosts special days at The Dirt Track @ Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord where veterans can ride in specially equipped racecars.

Roberson is expanding the program, and in January a group of 15 disabled veterans will begin a rehabilitation program that will teach them motorsports skills, help them get accredited or degreed and help them find employment.

The program will give disabled veterans that "first kind of push," Roberson said, to get out of difficult mindsets as a result of their experiences in war.

She already has seen how motorsports can help. She's listened to conversations between disabled veterans working on cars in her shop, talking about war experiences.

"They start opening up to each other, and some of the stuff they wouldn't say to anybody else, even their family," Roberson said. "Some days, I'll just sit and cry."

For some disabled veterans, even bending a piece of sheet metal can be a great way to take out frustrations.

Manpower to Horsepower will help disabled veterans get into an education program. The veterans will work at SMP Motorsports to learn the basics of motorsports. Roberson already has disabled veterans going to races and working on pit crews.

Agency leaders will use their connections to help disabled veterans find work and internships in their chosen job field, be it motorsports marketing or working on cars.

Roberson hopes to take the program nationwide to "help rehabilitate as many wounded veterans as we can" and reduce the unemployment and suicide rates among disabled veterans.

Manpower to Horsepower can use volunteers from any aspect of the motorsports industry to spend time with disabled veterans. Donations will help veterans buy their own tools they need to work on cars.

For more information, visit or call Roberson at 704-664-1674.