As a kid, Newton High School graduate Carson Voth remembers working on antique cars with his grandfather.
But the days of grease monkeys with dirt under the nails are no more. Voth and his classmate, Derek Roach, are learning first-hand that it’s high-tech electronic systems with computers that now control nearly all parts of a car.
The two will represent Kansas next week in a national competition sponsored by AAA and Ford, in which high school juniors and seniors are eligible to compete. The Auto Skills competition includes a 100-question exam and a 90-minute hands-on competition in which teams representing each state will diagnose and repair a 2014 Ford Fiesta.
“This is really kind of the Final Four or Super Bowl of automotive technology for these students,” said Jim Hanni, a spokesman for AAA in Kansas.
Since the state competition in April, Voth, Roach and their instructor, Bob Ziegler, have worked in the automotive garage at Newton High, preparing for nationals June 10 in Dearborn, Mich., the hometown of Henry Ford and headquarters of Ford Motor Co.
Conklin Cars of Newton donated a blue, 2014 Ford Fiesta to the team, the same car used in the hands-on portion of the competition. At the state contest in April, Voth and Roach diagnosed and repaired the car in 40 minutes – 50 minutes short of the allotted time.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Roach said of the state contest. “It’s not too stressful, but there’s a lot of pressure.”
Ron Downing, an automotive professor at Pittsburg State University, designed the state competition in Kansas and also contributes designs to the national contest in Michigan. Contest designers usually include between eight and 13 faults in the car.
Downing said the contestants are in high demand at universities and technical colleges across the country. The schools offer scholarship money to winners and runner-ups. After placing at state, Voth and Roach — who also graduated from Newton High this month — were each offered $35,400 in scholarship money.
“When they graduate as seniors, they’re at the top of their class,” Downing said.
This is because of the changing technology in modern vehicles, Ziegler said.
“Everything is so much more computerized,” he said. “There’s nothing in this car that’s not run by a computer.
“I’ve been in the business for 25 years, and it’s changed a lot. It’s not just a shade tree mechanic. You can’t do much in your front yard anymore.”
With the help of Ziegler and Cory Unruh – another Newton instructor whose team placed first at nationals two years ago – Voth and Roach will practice possible scenarios, putting in 60 hours in the shop in the course of two weeks. By the end, the car will be in pieces, Ziegler said.
“We wouldn’t learn near as much without (the instructors),” Roach said, “and it helps that we have the facilities that we do cause a lot of schools don’t have near as much stuff.”
Besides scholarship money, the winning team will also get the chance to shadow the pit crew of NASCAR driver Trevor Bayne.
Beyond the awards, though, Downing said the experience itself is just as rewarding. With help from the Auto Skills competition, Voth will study automotive mechanical design at Pittsburg State University this fall.
“All the schools try to recruit those students because they basically are a little bit further ahead than all the other students,” Downing said. “They have that drive at the senior and junior levels to better themselves.”