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Addison Trail students rev their engines for Ford/AAA competition

ADDISON – Engines roar, arms are speckled with cuts and hands are covered with black, slippery oil. This is automotive repair.

Addison Trail High School seniors Ashten Reich and Roman Flores have trained every day at 7 a.m. during lunch breaks and after school for a month, finding the glitches their auto shop teacher Keith Santini has placed under the hood and in the controls of a black Ford Explorer. Reich and Flores have minutes to fix the problems in the car, get it running and drive a lap around the parking lot. 

Reich, Flores and Santini were practicing to represent Illinois in the national Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills Competition, which took place this week in Dearborn, Mich. The team finished fourth in the national competition.

“I see it as my 15 minutes of fame,” Reich said. “I used to run cross country, but I never got first place.”

The last time Addison Trail High School won the national competition was in 1997, with Santini as the faculty coach. But the school has sent students to state about eight times, he said.

Reich and Flores won the state’s Ford/AAA contest in May at Parkland College in Champaign. The team had to diagnose and fix 10 problems on a Ford Focus, including a transmission range switch that prevented the car from starting.

At the end of the state’s 90-minute contest, only four vehicles were running. The local students repaired the car and drove to the finish line in 28 minutes and 39 seconds with a perfect car, winning $60,000 in scholarships and prizes worth about $450.

During the national competition, the first day consisted of the students taking a written test that counted toward their finish time. The team was given an Explorer and a list of clues to what is wrong with their car: the lights are out, it runs poorly, the tailgate is not working, etc.

The team’s game plan is to split up and separately diagnose and fix the problems, then go back and check each other’s work. Flores was in charge of looking under the hood of the car while Reich checked the fuses, such as the horn and internal lights.

They’re timed from the moment they start working on the car to the moment they close the hood. Every time they miss a problem, leave a tool under the hood or forget to connect a clip, they are given a demerit to their final time and score.

Once fixing the car, Flores and other competitors were to drive a lap to the finish line in an attempt to be the first perfect car to win.

“It’s one of the most stressful things I’ve done,” Flores said in reference to competing at the state level.

Winners or losers, the competition has brought the boys closer to their futures and to their teacher, Santini.

During one of their practices last week, the boys went to the Addison Trail student parking lot right after school had been let out. Santini had brought out tools and signs that read “Honk” and “Yell at Us” to simulate the pressure of nationals.

“From the time I was born, I was fixing cars,” Reich said while organizing his tools for another practice run. “We never had enough money to fix our cars so we just did it ourselves.”

Post-nationals, Flores and Reich’s futures look bright. Flores plans to study engineering and applied science while Reich will attend Ohio Tech to major in diesel automotive.

“I’d really like to thank my teacher,” Reich said. “Without him, my career would be a community college. He’s changed my future a lot and I thank him for that.”

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