Challenge Accepted

May 23, 2013

Aileen Melendez, a high-school senior at Loara High School in Anaheim, Calif., considered pursuing a career in music before the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow program helped her realize she had the heart and mind of a gearhead.

“My biggest dream is to work for NASCAR, to become an engineer and work with the vehicles on a high-performance level,” says Melendez, who has won more than $20,000 in scholarships through her participation in the nationwide high school engine-building contest.

When she met Loara High School auto tech instructor Russ Bacarella, Melendez was focused on playing the French horn in the school band. Bacarella, the instructor for the Hot Rodders team, noticed she was good at “wrenching on cars” from working with her dad on the family’s 1953 F-150 and asked her to participate in the competition.

“As soon as I got into automotive, I realized I liked it way more. Last year, I decided to quit the band and dedicate all my time to automotive,” Melendez says. “I like that it allows me to work with my hands. It’s very visual and easy for me to understand. It just clicks.”

Engines of Opportunity

Melendez hopes to attend the University of Northwestern Ohio after high school. Now competing for the fourth year in the youth program, Melendez almost has enough scholarship funding to attend her dream school.

The Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Engine Challenge was originally developed by Jim Bingham, president/CEO of Winner’s Circle Speed and Custom, in 2008 as a special event for the Race and Performance Expo in St. Charles, Ill. The program is designed to encourage high school teens to take an interest in the performance aftermarket by providing a series of competitions that exhibit their skill at breaking down and reassembling a small-block Chevrolet engine.

“When we were putting together the show in 2008, we talked about putting together an engine challenge to get youth involved in the automotive field,” says Rodney Bingham, director of Hot Rodders of Tomorrow.

What started as a small competition with five participating high schools from the Chicago area has blossomed into a nationwide competition with eight divisions. More than 2,000 students have participated in the program since its inception five years ago.

Hot Rodders of Tomorrow now has eight events, including a national championship-which will be held this year at the annual Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Show in Indianapolis-and the backing of 40 manufacturing sponsors.

Thanks to financial support from performance manufacturers, educational institutions, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), the Performance Warehouse Association, the AERA Engine Builders Association and other organizations, the engine-building program has cultivated more than $6 million in scholarship funding over the years for students attending the University of Northwestern Ohio, School of Automotive Machinists and Ohio Technical College.

Rodney Bingham credits much of the program’s success to his father Jim Bingham’s enthusiasm and the added support of Vic Edelbrock, chairman of Edelbrock Corp, who witnessed the first competition at the inaugural Race and Performance Expo.

“Vic dragged my dad to the back corner and said, ‘this is what our industry needs,'” Bingham said. “Not to say we wouldn’t have kept doing it, but if Vic didn’t get so excited about it, it wouldn’t have grown.”

Edelbrock, in partnership with SEMA CEO Chris Kersting, helped the organization establish the “Showdown at SEMA” national championship at the 2009 SEMA Show, a tradition that was maintained for four years before the move this year to PRI, which SEMA now also oversees.

In addition to scholarship money and the championship title, NASCAR Performance and Edelbrock included a trip to Charlotte, N.C., for NASCAR Acceleration Weekend as part of the prize package for the Loara High School 2012 championship-winning team.

Speed Teams

Hot Rodders teams consisting of five students and one instructor compete to disassemble and reassemble an engine with aftermarket components in the shortest amount of time while avoiding penalties for issues such as dropped components, improper disassembly or assembly, and poor sportsmanship.

“They get to feel what it’s like to be a high school quarterback, per se, when people are actually cheering for them,” says Bingham of the crowds that the teen engine builders draw during the competitions.

Bacarella, who led Loara High School to three national championship wins during his time at the school, says he treated the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow program like any other high school sports team. No prerequisites such as mechanical knowledge or motor skills were required.

“It still blows other instructors’ minds how fast Russ got it done. He almost had it choreographed where the kids knew where they had to be at a certain time, and it’s almost like a dance,” Bingham says.

When Bacarella first competed in 2008, he says his team qualified at around 60 minutes. In 2012, his team qualified at a national record-setting level of 19:11 minutes.

“Every instructor has a method for disassembly and assembly, but I look at people and specific things in them,” he says. “I have a very specific placement of people and process for building the engine.”

In past years, if a team ranked No. 1 at an event, it automatically qualified to participate in the national finals. However, the competition switched to a timed format in 2013. Now any team that beats a time of 35 minutes is automatically in the finals, Bingham says.

Bacarella, Melendez and other members of Loara won their third straight national championship with an average time of 21:24 minutes at the 2012 “Showdown at SEMA.”

Now the West Coast operations manager for Hot Rodders and an instructor at Cypress Community College in Garden Grove, Calif., Bacarella hopes the program continues bringing awareness to the opportunities in vocational and career technical education.

“Vocational education is just not financed the way it needs to be in order for these kids to be successful in that area,” Bacarella says.

Hot Rodders of Tomorrow has even helped save high school automotive programs that were threatened by lack of interest or funding. By stimulating interest among students, Bingham says the program has increased enrollment in automotive courses, thus saving them from the chopping block.

“We’re saving high school automotive programs. When we set out, that wasn’t one of our goals. We didn’t even know there was a problem until we got involved,” Bingham says.

More than Engine Building

Ryan Gortney, a Hot Rodder’s instructor at the Elkhart Area Career Center that serves 21 area high schools in four counties and two states, also has participated in the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Engine Challenge since its inception.

Gortney says Hot Rodders encourages students to maintain high grades, good attendance and vital employability skills.

“The value I see as an instructor is that the students build great teamwork skills, great camaraderie, great discipline-”a lot of the traits that they’re going to need throughout life in order to be successful in whatever career field that they choose,” he says. “The teamwork aspect of it especially-”there isn’t a job out there that I am aware of that you are not going to have to work with others in some capacity.

“You can be fast at what you do, but it takes working side-by-side with the other four individuals (on the team) in order for you to be highly effective and highly successful. Most people’s jaws drop when they see it for the first time,” Gortney says.

Scott Wahlstrom, marketing manager at Motor State Distributing, says Hot Rodders of Tomorrow also educates students about the vast career opportunities available in the performance and racing industries. He says it also clarifies the misconception that careers in the automotive industry have to involve working in service or body shops.

“If you have a passion for hot rods, and performance and racing, there are all kinds of opportunities, whether it be in sales, accounting, marketing, product development or working for race teams,” Wahlstrom says. “There is a wealth of job opportunities that students have never even given a thought to.”

Motor State Distributing and Allstar Performance both sponsor Hot Rodders teams, and parent company Lane Automotive has supported the program fully from the beginning. Lane Automotive/Motor State hosts a Hot Rodders of Tomorrow competition at its annual car show, which usually allows 12 to 15 student teams to mingle with more than 190 manufacturers, Wahlstrom says.

Wahlstrom, who was educated in graphic design, says he personally would have benefited from the career awareness the program generates.

“I did not know I could pursue a career like this in the performance industry; I just didn’t think about it,” he says. “My sister happened to cut out an ad that led me to Lane Automotive and Motor State, and that was almost 24 years ago. I found my perfect fit, but it was by chance.”

Lou Lobsinger Jr. of PROFORM/Specialty Auto Parts USA Inc., a Detroit-area company that has sponsored the program for the past four years, says the program has helped build relationships with schools and technical institutes.

“Our motivation is simple; we want to inspire the next generation of hot rodders,” he explains, noting that the company also offers engine building tools and dress-up parts at no cost to the participating teams.

“This program is important on many levels,” Lobsinger notes. “The obvious one is getting these kids plugged into our industry via the skilled trades.  The other intangible is it creates excitement and interest in the automotive aftermarket.  As long as there are cars, we’re all going to find ways to make them look better and go faster.  Now, we gotta get that next generation fired up about the industry!”

Investing In the Future

Wahlstrom says Hot Rodders also provides valuable networking opportunities. Teams that qualify for national championships are required to visit with sponsoring manufacturers at the shows and learn about their companies.

“It’s not just all about practicing and tearing an engine down and building it back up. They’re trying to show these kids a life career opportunity here,” he says.

Because Hot Rodders of Tomorrow is 100-percent run by volunteers, Motor State Distributing assists in any way it can, including helping with staffing requirements and giving employees time to volunteer.

And the credibility of the program continues to rise as more people in the industry get involved, Wahlstrom adds.

“It’s really a pull-together of the entire industry,” he says. “I think our biggest contribution is that we are very passionate about this and what it means for us in the future. It is our future, and we have to invest in that.”

Although Hot Rodders has gained a large, committed staff of volunteers on the West Coast-”as well as another trailer so officials don’t have to transport the competition engines from the Midwest to the West Coast-”funding is still an issue for the organization.

“A challenge is controlled growth. We could add another 50 events tomorrow, but we just don’t have the funding for that,” says Bingham, who attends every competition and is in charge of transporting and setting up the donated competition engines.

“We use 100-percent volunteer staff, so we have to be cautious about how much we use them, because they only have so many hours they can volunteer,” he adds.

But he says the outcome is well worth the hard work. Students like Melendez, who have competed in Hot Rodders of Tomorrow, have gone on to become NASCAR pit crew members, diesel mechanics and engineers.

“My favorite part is getting to meet all of the sponsors and everybody that’s involved with the program like all the car enthusiasts,” Melendez says. “And working on what I like to do and getting rewarded for it is the best feeling ever.”