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Ford / AAA Student Auto Skills Competition

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Arizona Team

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Washington State Team

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Illinois Team

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Competitors Admire Ford GT

“Gentlemen, start your engines . . . if you can.

By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

Fifty new Mustangs convertibles were neatly arranged on the expansive lawn in the shadow of Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, MI. It was a warm and hazy summer morning with a threat of thunderstorms. “Gentlemen, start your engines . . . if you can,” blared the speakers at precisely 10:15 AM. None of the Mustangs would start.

Fifty (one from each state), two-man teams of high school student mechanics – or technicians, we should say – were chomping at the bit to fix ‘em, get ‘em inspected and perhaps win some big prizes, mostly generous scholarships. Each team had survived a state competition, including both written and hands-on tests, for the honor to compete for the big prizes in Dearborn.

John Nielson is AAA’s man in charge of the Approved Auto Repair Network, a system of certified repair shops. Among his other responsibilities he’s part of the team of highly skilled and experienced technicians who make sure these Mustangs won’t start. The cars are “bugged” with 10 identical defects. He explains that the competition tests the youngster’s abilities to follow a procedure to solve the problems, fixing all ten defects without causing more, and without fixing something that ain’t broke, as we used to say in the racing world.

These young men (I didn’t see any women, but we’re assured there have been some) have just an hour and a half to get everything fixed. Each team has two tables - one full of tools, the other full of parts. Some will be needed, others might not be. Some might just be there to fool them. Joshua Baker, of the Arkansas team, later chuckled about the parking light bulb with sabotaged contacts. “They fooled me with that one at the state competition but I caught it here.” He and his teammate, Christopher Bearden, animatedly recapped their performance for me, though I understood only a fraction of what they were describing in techo-speak. They finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, time-wise, but were confident they did well.

Coach of the Illinois team, Brian Elliot of Willow Brook High School in Villa Park, has brought teams to the national competition 6 times, including once many years ago when Plymouth was the sponsor. His boys, Mark Mitchell and Raymond Swan, were third, or maybe fourth, to finish and were also confident, giving me a hearty thumbs-up when I asked how they did. I’m reminded by Mr. Nielson, though, that 40% of each team’s score is dependent on the 100-question written test that was taken earlier. And, of course, time is only one criteria of the hands-on competition. Accuracy and completeness are also factored in.

Time was quickly running out as I wandered out onto the field to observe close-up. Only a few teams were still working, New York, New Jersey, South Dakota and Vermont. They were looking a bit disappointed and frustrated since they had worked so hard and had such early success getting to Dearborn. Now something has gone awry. It would do no good, I’m sure, to remind them that just getting to the finals is an honor and an accomplishment to be proud of.

During the waiting time between the end of competition and the posting of scores everyone had a chance to talk to the charming young NASCAR driver who was just named to replace Mark Martin in the AAA-sponsored, Roush Racing Ford Fusion. Personally, I’m just happy to see AAA back in racing after a much-too-long hiatus. Though 27-years-old, Todd Kluever (pronounced just like The Beaver’s last name) looks nearly as young as these high schoolers. He graciously insists that, whatever he accomplishes in his career, being chosen to replace Mark Martin will always be a highlight. There were also plenty of Ford products on display including an intense yellow Ford GT.

AAA and Ford Motor Company have been doing this Student Auto Skills project together for about 13 years. Darryl Hazel, executive director of Ford Customer Service Division, sees it an essential tool in recruiting service technicians. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a substantial shortage of auto techs in upcoming years and Hazel insists that these jobs are paying big bucks even now. “There are some auto technicians making $100,000/year, and the average is 40 to 60-grand,” Hazel insists. “The best pay goes to those with skills in diagnosis, but technicians just doing parts replacement are doing very well too.” Ford has one of the most respected auto tech training programs as well, providing a work-study arrangement where the student works and studies alternately and tuition is covered by Ford.

Simultaneously, in the grass next to all the Mustangs, were 11 new Ford Fusions that wouldn’t start. They, too, had been “bugged” with identical malfunctions. These were for the professional category, which garnered considerably less attention but was certainly as hotly contested. The Ultimate Master Technician Challenge pits one experienced individual technician from each of Ford’s 11 regions in a very similar contest, with written tests and hands-on competition. The big difference is that they win cash and the use of Ford cars instead of scholarships. The winner was a very happy Jonathan Strachan representing Hall Ford of Newport News, VA, in Ford’s Mid Atlantic Region. Second place went to Steven Kraft of the Midwest Region representing 32 Ford-Lincoln Mercury of Fort Thomas, KY.

As the final scores for the students were being tabulated the slowly darkening skies began to threaten anew. First a clap of thunder sounded, a bit too close for comfort. Then lightning was spotted. Having waited and waited for the scores the suspense was continued with the announcement of awards postponed until the evening banquet.

Finally, the awards were announced. Drum roll please . . .

Taking first place, after months of preparation, was the Texas team of Bradley J. Bolton and Aaron Clay under the tutelage of instructor/coach, Michael Schmidt from Paris High School, Paris Texas. They finished the hands-on portion of the competition in 29 minutes and 34 seconds, diagnosing and fixing the 10 bugs in the Mustang flawlessly. “Aaron and Bradley today proved they are America’s most auto-savvy teens,” said Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills manager Allan Stanley. “Their hard work and drive to be the top high school auto technicians is typical of every participant here. The Auto industry must attract such dedicated young people to keep America’s vehicles operating safely and trouble-free.”

Taking second place was the Vale, Oregon team of Travis Bradfield and Ken Netcher with instructor, Merle Saunders. Third place went to the confident Illinois team we spoke with earlier. Our local favorite, the Michigan team of Jeffrey Elder and Anthony Fraley, from St. Clair County Tech in Marysville, took sixth place.

What happened to those 50 hot new Mustangs, you may ask? Well, they went back to the Hertz rental fleet from which they came. Next time you rent a Mustang convertible you may have a contest car. I bet it will be in first-rate condition.