Competition pits Carolinas’ best high school auto students

You could never tell by his calm demeanor, but Nicholas Farley had grown nervous as the clock ticked down at the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday morning.

The West Iredell High School senior was among 20 North Carolina high school students and 20 from South Carolina competing in two-student teams to represent their states at the national finals June 8-10 at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.

The competition awards millions of dollars in scholarships on both the state and national levels each year.

Five teams came from the Troutman-based Iredell-Statesville Automotive Technology Center, which teaches students from Iredell County’s five high schools. A two-student Iredell-Statesville team had won the state competition 21 of the past 23 years.

Teams had 90 minutes to identify and repair intentionally installed “bugs” in identical 2014 Ford Fiestas. After diagnosing and repairing the cars in the Nationwide garage, teams backed their cars outside, where their accuracy and workmanship were judged.

“Changing the part isn’t the hard part,” said Shane Fox, an instructor at the Iredell-Statesville center who won the competition in 1992 as a West Iredell High School student. Chrysler sponsored the event back then. “It’s figuring out which part to change.”

One of the bugs involved starting the cars – a problem that stumped numerous teams, including Farley and teammate Joel Hardison, a North Iredell High School senior. “We couldn’t get the car cranked up,” Farley said. “That caused a little stress.”

But with five minutes left, they figured out the problem and backed the car out of the garage – the first North Carolina team to do so.

“I really thought we were going to be one of the last ones out,” Farley said. “It was a surprise to see so many teams still in there.”

“Very surprising,” Hardison said.

The team and their instructor, Rusty Parker, finished second to a team from Watagua High School. A team from the Pickens County Career and Technology Center took top South Carolina honors, while the Iredell-Statesville Automotive Technology Center and instructor Dwayne Troutman won for highest written exam on the test required for selection to the competition.

Beyond the trophies, however, are the prospects for a career in a transportation-related field. They are jobs on which the students now have a sizable head start, their instructors said.