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‘As big as it gets’
by Garrett Valenzuela
May 09, 2013 | 3030 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- Jesus Saldana, left, and Nathaniel Erickson search through Ford Focus schematics Thursday morning during the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition at John Ascuaga's Nugget.
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- Jesus Saldana, left, and Nathaniel Erickson search through Ford Focus schematics Thursday morning during the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition at John Ascuaga's Nugget.
SPARKS -- Spectators not well versed in auto mechanics seemed a bit puzzled Thursday morning as students from across the state hustled from engine to taillight trying to fix ‘bugs’ in 10 Ford Focus cars lining the south wall of the parking garage at John Ascuaga’s Nugget.

Twenty students from the top qualifying Nevada high schools competed in the state finals of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition challenging students to identify and correct, within a 90-minute time period, numerous glitches strategically placed within the car. Students competing in the hands-on portion Thursday were narrowed from an online written exam taken by every high school in Nevada a few weeks earlier.

Reed High School has entered the competition for several years and has placed teams in the top-10 round multiple times. This year Reed High instructor Todd Teague brought the two-man team of Nathaniel Erickson and Jesus Saldana to represent the east Sparks school. Teague said the two seniors earned high exam scores to compete in the finals and said the intensity grows as each second ticks off the clock.

“There is a lot of pressure in this competition,” Teague said. “It is very intense and the unknowns they come up against can happen at any time. We have been training for a couple weeks but being on a clock, the pressure they are under, the problems they have with the vehicles and where they have to go to find them, creates a very intense competition. As an instructor, it is hard watching them because you want to be in there helping them, pointing things out and working with them.”

Erickson and Saldana said they worked with similar Ford vehicles in the weeks leading up to the competition and tried to prepare for any obstacles they may encounter during the competition. Both students spent time during and after school “bugging” the car and creating a plan to fix it, but the competition floor is much different than the shop at Reed High.

“We had to take a lot of personal time out of our day to get to this point,” Saldana said. “After school, during lunch and trying to find other classes we could get out of to go into the shop to practice.”

Erickson said the clock was the most difficult component of the competition and added that he felt comfortable working on the car, but the clock added a bit more intensity. He said the tandem’s teamwork Thursday was off to a slow start but hit its stride when it needed to.

“At first, when we started out, we weren’t working as a team very well,” Erickson said, “But as it went on about a half hour in we started meshing and everything seemed to be working well.”

Saldana agreed that the chemistry of the team grew and the pair became more comfortable as the clock continued to wind.

“We didn’t plan where Nate would take the front of the car and I would focus on the back,” Saldana said, “But next thing you know we stopped switching and I was on one half and he was on the other and we basically met in the middle to grab tools and that was it.”

The Reed High seniors were one of three teams to have their car started and driven across the finish line, behind Coronado and Arbor View high schools (Las Vegas), slamming the hood of the car with only three minutes left in the competition. After officials examined their car to tally a final score, both teammates agreed a little more teamwork and preparation could have improved their performance.

“Definitely we needed to work as a team from the beginning,” Erickson said, “And have a better game plan going into it so we know what we are going to do right then and there and not have confusion at the beginning and have to work through it.”

Saldana added, proving the point about unknowns made by his instructor, that one small hiccup can throw a wrench into the plan -- no pun intended.

“It was the game plan,” Saldana said of what he would change, “Because we had a plan ready, but the minute the hood didn’t open, everything just vanished. After that, I am not going to lie, we panicked.”

While there were some things the team would like to have changed, the treasured moment remained clear by the competition’s end. Both Erickson and Saldana said this was the high point of their senior year, and Teague said he knows just how much the “first-class competition by Ford and AAA” means to the students competing.

“It is about how much they learned up to this point,” Teague said. “All the training and all the hours they put in -- and the hour and a half of doing this -- is something they will always remember. Students who have done this competition before come back, and I have seen them as adults after high school, and the learning and excitement they get out of this, you can’t teach in the classroom. This is as big as it gets for them.”
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