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July 11, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Friday, July 11, 2008

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Taking laps around the Martinsville Speedway at high speeds in an official NASCAR pace car on Thursday was an experience that some recent college graduates from across Virginia may never forget.

The graduates are part of the 2008 Governor's Fellows Program sponsored by Gov. Tim Kaine. They toured the speedway and the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville as part of a daylong visit to Southside.

They seemed just as impressed with the pace car's driver as they were with the speed and tire-squealing on sharp turns. The driver, dressed not in racing gear but a suit and tie, was speedway President Clay Campbell.

Jamie Atkinson, a recent graduate of Christopher Newport University from Prince William County, got out of the car with her tongue dangling from her mouth.

"It was absolutely amazing, exhilarating!" said Atkinson. She said that she previously had not been a NASCAR fan, but "I am now!"

Brian Chigbinski of Salem, who recently graduated from The College of William & Mary, said the ride was "pretty sweet." (That means "nice" in modern lingo.)
Speedway Public Relations Director Mike Smith joked that he would let Campbell discuss the fellows' rides with "the risk management people."

The Governor's Fellows program lets recent college graduates interested in pursuing careers in public service observe state government operations and learn about characteristics and attractions of various parts of the state.

Amber Amato, director of the program, said much of the discussion in Richmond nowadays among state officials is related to the burgeoning areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

"It's important to remember that other parts of the state are just as vital," she said.
None of the approximately 15 Governor's Fellows who took part in Thursday's visit were from the Henry County-Martinsville area.

Amato is from Dinwiddie. This was her first visit to the area, and she was just as excited as the fellows.

Looking out the window after she rode an elevator up to a speedway VIP suite, Amato, who is not much older than the fellows, remarked that the elevator indicated it was the third floor, but "we're super high up."

The way the suites are built above the grandstands, the suite level actually is about 12 stories up, speedway Marketing Director Karen Parker told her.

"Places all over the country would do back flips to have something like this" speedway due to its economic impact on the area, Campbell told the fellows.

He said the speedway contributes about $30 million annually to the local economy. That includes not only sales of race tickets, but also money that racing fans from elsewhere spend in the community on things such as meals, lodging and shopping, he indicated.

Some NASCAR fans arrive at the speedway in campers up to a week ahead of the races, and they buy gas and groceries here, he noted.

Earlier Thursday, Amato and museum staff found it hard to lure the fellows away from the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville.

"It's great when visitors don't want to leave," said museum Marketing and External Affairs Director Ryan Barber.

"The museum is amazing," said Monica Gray of Staunton, a recent University of Virginia graduate. She was especially fascinated by sea shells and marine life exhibits that show "how they make our pretty pearls."

It is interesting to see how the museum is "reaching out to young minds in the area," Chigbinski said. "It's great to see this kind of facility here" in a small community.

Museum Executive Director Tim Gette said staff members at the state-funded museum hope the Governor's Fellows go back to their hometowns, tell people about the museum and its exhibits and encourage people to visit.

"We do everything we can to spread the word about this museum ... and bring visitors in," he said.

Chigbinski said he is looking for a job in either state or federal government, or working for a political campaign. He said that by visiting the museum, he was able to learn about the operations of a state agency in a way that he could not experience in the classroom.

Gray, Atkinson and Chigbinski all said that Thursday's trip to Southside was their first visit to Henry County and Martinsville, and they were impressed by the community.

"Everyone I've met has been nice and friendly," Gray said.

"I didn't know a lot about Southside, but it's a nice place," Atkinson said. It seems to have a lot of open spaces, she said, "but there's a lot to do here."

"Martinsville is booming," added Amato. "It's tremendous."

Upon leaving the speedway, the Governor's Fellows traveled to Danville, where they visited the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.

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