DEARBORN, MI June 24 Crossing the finish line in 73 minutes and 40 seconds, aspiring auto technicians Paul Bretl and Chris Cheek, 2008 graduates of Grafton High School, in Grafton, WI, drove their fully repaired 2008 Ford Focus to victory in the 59th annual Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills national finals in June.
In addition to thousands of dollars in scholarships, the winning duo earned the unique opportunity to “job shadow” the Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 AAA Ford Fusion team for a week at their race shop in Concord, NC, and served as honorary members of the pit crew at the July 12 Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.
Logging hundreds of hours in preparation with their instructor, Carl Hader, the pair proved ready to battle their technology-savvy peers from schools in the 49 other states. The contest gives the “best of the best” an opportunity to showcase their knowledge and capabilities by resolving the same types of automotive challenges they would encounter in the real world.
As an incentive to students to pursue automotive careers, Ford and AAA awarded $7 million in scholarships at this year’s state and national competitionsa $1 million increase over 2007.
“Paul and Chris demonstrated they are the preeminent high school auto technicians in the country,” said John Morse, manager of Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills.
“All 100 finalists proved their expertise, which should develop even more as they continue their education and embark on careers, perhaps in automotive technology. They are the future of the automotive industry, and the skilled technicians who will keep America’s vehicles safe and properly operating,” added Morse.
Zachary Bryant and Cory Zamenski, rising seniors at Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore, MD, captured second place.
Third place went to Kevin Podvin and Taylor Morehouse, 2008 graduates of Sheyenne Valley Career & Tech in Valley City, ND.
The top-10 teams in the Auto Skills contest received general education scholarships valued from $2,500 to $400 from Ford Motor Co. and AAA. Some of the leading automotive technology institutions in the country, including Lincoln College of Technology, University of Northwestern Ohio, Universal Technical Institute, Ohio Technical College, Nashville Auto-Diesel School and Baran Institute of Technology, also provided full and
“The scholarships awarded at the state and national level will help many of these young competitors hone their skill and expertise and embark on careers in the automotive industry as well as other fields,” said John Nielsen, AAA Approved Auto Repair and Auto Buying Network director.
“The Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition plays an important role in steering young men and women toward becoming skilled auto technicians, who are in high demand nationwide,” Nielsen said.
The 50, two-person teams that gathered on the front lawn of Ford World Headquarters had triumphed over more than 8,000 auto tech students who entered the competition last fall at high schools across the country.
Following an online exam, the highest-scorers advanced to their states’ hands-on competition, then onto Dearborn, where the 100 finalists sat for another written exam worth 40% of their overall score.
The hands-on contest, valued at 60% of their total score, began at 9:15 a.m. with the announcement, “Start your engines, if you can.” After racing to their assigned cars, the competitors had 90 minutes to accurately diagnose and correctly repair the deliberate “bugs” placed in the Ford Focuses two engine performance problems, six malfunctions in the electrical system, and a problem with the air conditioning system.
“This competition fulfills two important functionsallowing students to gain experience and earn education scholarships and also to recognize prospective career options,” said Steve DeAngelis, Global Manager of Technical Support Operations at Ford.
“The Auto Skills sponsors offer these contestants and other talented young people unparalleled opportunities to enter a range of automotive professions, including Ford’s dealer network.”
Eleven Ford-certified Master Technicians from Ford dealerships across the country competed in the Ford Ultimate Master Technician challenge, a similar hands-on contest which ran concurrently with the Auto Skills competition, to win more than $50,000 in cash and prizes.
Unique Stories about Unique Students
The 2008 competition had plenty of unique stories that where found among the 2008 national finalists, including:
Caitlin Short, a 2008 graduate of Vale High School, Vale, OR, was the first female student since 2005 to make the national finals. She was one of the 346 young women who competed at the high school level and 18 who made it to state competitions.
Short, who achieved the highest score on Oregon’s state competition qualifying exam and who’s team placed 8th in the national finals, began studying automotive technology at the encouragement of her older sister.
“Though my sister wasn’t exactly mechanically inclined, she enjoyed it, so I took my first class during my freshman year and have loved it ever since,” said Short, seen in the photos below. “I didn’t know a thing before I started taking auto tech, but I really liked taking things apart and putting them back together. Studying auto tech seemed to just click with me.”
Short will study electrical engineering at the University of Idaho in the fall and hopes for a career in automotive engineering and design.
His love of cars and dedication to auto tech studies helped propel 2008 Provo High School graduate Austin Springer to the national finals despite being faced with adversity in his life. Instructor Coleman McVea said Springer had to overcome many challenges to pursue his spot on the Provo High School team, losing his father at an early age and living in several foster homes.
While in school, Springer worked as an assistant manager at a health foods store and prepared for the finals after work and on weekends. Springer hopes to use Auto Skills scholarships or other financial awards to study automotive technology.
Springer’s teammate and fellow graduate, Benjamin Hernandez, is a Native American from a single mother household. Hernandez, whom McVea also described as smart and hard-working, is employed in an auto tech internship training program at an independent auto shop in Provo and plans a career in engineering.
Kyle Shanahan, a 2008 graduate of Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, IL, is following in his father’s footsteps by studying automotive technology, to prepare to take over the family’s repair shop business.
“My dad encouraged me to pursue what interests me, but ever since I was 12 and saw how the shop operated, I knew I wanted to learn more about auto technology,” said Shanahan. “My dad competed in programs similar to the Auto Skills competition when he was my age, so for me to go to the national finals is a big accomplishment for both of us. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Shanahan will continue to work at his father’s Lombard, IL, shop until beginning his post-secondary studies at WyoTech with his Auto Skills state scholarship prize.
Vale, OR, high school instructor Merle Saunders brought a team to the finals for the 21st time, the longest known record in competition history. Many veteran instructors considered Saunders’ students as “the team to beat.”
“Once you have a tradition of going to the national finals, students are motivated to continue the tradition,” said Saunders of his school’s success. “Students believe if their classmates can make it to the national finals, they can, too. Additionally, working with dedicated, hard-working students helps to keep Vale High School’s tradition alive.”
Under Saunders’ tutelage, teammates Short and Erickson practiced an average of six-to-seven hours a day, six days a week and reviewed 1,300 written questions to prepare for the national finals.
Maui High School, in Kahului, HI, sent a team to the national finals for the 15th year the competition’s second-longest record. Instructor Neill Nakamura keeps it simple and advises his students, “A good attitude will give you good results.”
This year’s team members Rodney Gazmen, a rising senior at Maui High, and 2008 graduate Louel Valdez both have plans to continue their automotive technology education after high school.