Equipping race-car drivers for success

When Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. communicate with their crew chiefs and spotters at the Daytona 500 next Sunday, they can thank Sue Carver, Donna Woods and dozens of other workers at Racing Electronics on Derita Road.

The company equips about 80 percent of professional racers with custom ear molds, microphone-equipped headsets and the wiring needed to talk with their teams. They include drivers and crew in NASCAR, IndyCar, the National Hot Road Association and other circuits.

Racing Electronics has become a worldwide leader in providing radio communications products to the motorsports industry since owner Bruce Silver started making on-track communications devices as a hobby in 1988 in his New Jersey condo.

He moved the company to Concord in 2005 and now employs about 70 workers here. The company has developed high-quality scanners and headphones for race fans and advanced technologies for radio wiring and two-way radio equipment for motorsports teams.

Last year, Racing Electronics also became one of the first companies in the state to hire and train several unemployed workers through the N.C. Division of Employment Security's Opportunity North Carolina job creation program

The company was named Small Business of the Year by the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce in January. The N.C. Motorsports Association honored the company last month with a motorsports industry award.

Silver got the idea for his products after being invited to a race in New Jersey. He realized fans would have a tbetter time at the track if they could tune into conversations between drivers and crew chiefs.

Silver went to an electronics store, bought a headset and radio, put speakers in the headset and gathered the scanner frequencies of drivers, said Kevin Hughes, director of motorsports communications services at Racing Electronics.

The company grew to manufacture and sell equipment to fans and top motorsports teams such as Huntersville-based Joe Gibbs Racing, Cornelius-based Michael Waltrip Racing and Mooresville-based Penske Racing South.

On a Feb. 9 tour, Hughes showed me the custom ear mold that Racing Electronics workers made for Patrick, a former IndyCar star who's starting her first full season in NASCAR this year. Workers planned to deliver the earpiece and other communications equipment to Patrick and other drivers at Daytona International Speedway this weekend.

Fans buy the company's headphones and scanners at Charlotte Motor Speedway and other tracks to tune into drivers' conversations during a race.

Hughes said the company has made a big push to bring work in-house from overseas and other areas of the country in recent years.

The company opened an in-house lab about two years ago where Lindsay Borkowski, Joey Palubiak and other technicians make custom ear molds for drivers. The lab had been on the West Coast, Hughes said. The company bought a used injection mold machine, and N.C.-based vendors make the company's dyes, he said.

In another part of the company's building at 840 Derita Road, Woods, 41, of Kannapolis soldered microphones for headsets. Carver, 60, of Kannapolis built custom in-car wiring harnesses that connect a driver to a radio and the push-to-talk button on the steering wheel.

Moving work in-house not only led to better quality control, Hughes said, "it's good for our local economy, and it's creating jobs here."