FAIRBANKS — The North Pole High School automotive program has a decorated past, but its trophy case had always been missing one thing — a medal from the national Student Auto Skills competition sponsored by Ford and AAA.
North Pole has won the Alaska Student Auto Skills competition seven times, according to longtime instructor Jerry Million, earning them a spot at the national competition each time, but they had never quite broken through. Fifty teams — the winner from each state — participate in the competition, and North Pole had never finished higher than 14th place.
That all changed Tuesday, when Cole Vinton and Andrew Risner turned in one of only three perfectly repaired vehicles at the competition. The performance was good enough to earn them second place in the country, finishing above every team except Oregon.
The national Student Auto Skills competition is a two-day event, comprised of a written event on Monday and a hands-on car repair test on Tuesday. In the hands-on repair segment, each team of two is given a 2015 Ford Mustang Fastback with an unlisted number of problems. Their goal is to return the car to judges without a single problem as quickly as possible.
The hands-on repair segment counts for the most points, which are awarded to teams based on their ability to fix every problem in the car. The speed at which they fix the car factors into the score. The faster you close the hood — signaling the end of your work — the better. The team’s combined score on the written test factors in as well.
“If there’s more than one perfect car that comes out,” Risner said, “they go by hood closure and test scores.”
Vinton and Risner won at the state level by perfectly repairing another American car — a Ford Fiesta. You never know what you’re going to get in the Auto Skills competition. At the state level, Vinton and Risner replaced several lights, a few bad fuses and the spark plug wire.
“Our first step is to look at every single fuse,” Risner said.
They’ll check the battery, and then Vinton goes to the driver’s seat while Risner stands by the hood. They check all the lights, reverse sensors, mirrors, etc. If the car isn’t running they hook up the scanner and check for any error codes.
“If there’s any codes we’ll go from there,” Risner said.
For state, the duo had to replace a couple lights, a couple bad fuses the plug wire was bad.
Risner and Vinton both graduated this spring. They each spent three years in the automotive program, awaiting their turn as seniors to represent the school at the state competition.
Last week, just hours before their flight to Detroit was scheduled to depart, Risner and Vinton practiced on a 2015 Mustang Fastback provided by Seekins Ford. They described their experience as heart pounding.
“It was the fastest 90 minutes of my life,” Risner said.
Four days later, they stood in front of the same car in front of the Ford Headquarters and some of the best mechanics in the country.
North Pole automotive instructor Jerry Million stood on the sidelines and watched his team put their three years of automotive education to use.
For Million, Tuesday’s competition was a validation of the decade-plus of work he has put into North Pole’s auto program. He arrived at the school 15 years ago and set out to receive national accreditation. Four years later, in 2004, that dream became a reality, and North Pole became the first National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation-certified high school program in Interior Alaska.
Million said, in his opinion, the automotive program is one of the most rigorous at the school. He doesn’t define success in the program by how many students go on to work in the auto industry. Rather, he judges success by how well he prepares his students for life and education after high school.
“It incorporates all the disciplines,” Million said. “You can’t always measure success by how many go into the (industry). Because you find those that figure out they don’t want to do it or they get some other skill set out of it and they go into a different trade.”
Long recognized as one of the premiere automotive programs in Alaska, North Pole High School’s automotive program can claim with confidence it’s one of the best in the United States.
Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMschools.