Two high school students, Matthew Ludwig and Justin Dwyer, both from Faribault High School in Minnesota, are having, in their own words, a "once in a lifetime experience" this week, culminating with the race weekend at Pocono.
These two students won the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills Competition, culminating in the grand prize of shadowing Matt Kenseth, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, and the No. 17 DeWALT Tools team for the Pocono Race weekend.
Ludwig, Dwyer, and their high school teacher, Mark Lessman began thier prize winning experience on Tuesday, traveling from Minnesota to Rockingham with Kenseth's team for some testing. They returned to the race shop on Wednesday to work "hands on" with the team on the race car.
The students and their teacher then traveled on Roush Air, the team's private jet, to Pocono, where they will be shadowing the team for the race weekend. On race day, they plan to continue their schooling, working in the pits and assisting the team.
Ford and AAA, along with several other affiliated sponsors, are responsible for this unique nationwide Auto Skills Competition, marking its 60th anniversary this year. More than 9,700 juniors and seniors in high school competed head to head on written tests, as well as a "hands on" test in the field, in this prestigious competition.
The contest is geared for students interested in careers in the automotive industry. Over $10.7 million in scholarships are also provided through this innovative competition.
Mark Lessman, the teacher of the winning contest duo this year, is no stranger to the Auto Skills Competition. "I've been participating in this contest since 1994," said Lessman. "We've won 13 of the last 16 years in the state of Minnesota and we won the national title once before in 2003."
Lessman has been a truck mechanic himself, prior to his teaching career at Faribault High School. Although more of an NHRA fan, Lessman has grown to appreciate NASCAR as well.
"NASCAR is fun too," said Lessman. "What's really nice about the sport is that people go out of their way to help you out."
The thing that he enjoys most is seeing the students not only experience what they enjoy most, but also that the students receive scholarships so they can go to school and continue their education.
Matthew Ludwig, one half of the winning duo, shared how he got into the contest. "I was selected by my instructor to take a written test to qualify for the state championship," said Ludwig. "We had the highest written score so won State and qualified for the National Competition."
Ludwig continued, "For the nationals, we had another 100 question written test. Every answer that we got wrong, we got an 18 second time penalty on the "hands on" portion of the test."
"The team with the lowest time score for the combined "hands on" test and the penalty time, wins the competition," explained Ludwig.
The "hands on" competition involved diagnosing and fixing "mainly electrical problems," said Ludwig. "Possible problems included issues with the car sensors, window switches, mirrors, head lights, and tail lights."
Ludwig said that "every car was basically bugged the same." He and his partner, Justin Dwyer, obtained a total score of 42 minutes and 51 seconds to win the national competition.
Dwyer, said "It's been a really great experience. I've gotten to go to a lot of different states where I've never been, which is kinda cool."
Dwyer continued "The rewards that we got were just outstanding. I actually get to go to college now and I don't have to worry about it."
"I was just going to go to a community college in state," said Dwyer. "Now I can go wherever I want. It's amazing."
Both students are considering careers in the automotive industry. The two young men, who are going into their senior year of high school this year, are interested in applying to UTI.
Dwyer has aspirations in the hot rod design and fabricating industry while Ludwig is considering a career in diesel, hopefully working on heavy trucks like the NASCAR haulers.
Both students share that they have been experiencing "lots of travel" and "lots of interviews." But more important, they are experiencing their first NASCAR race and seeing it from a perspective that most others are never able to experience.
"No one ever gets to do that," summarized Dwyer.
The students have also had the unique opportunity to work "hands on" on the DeWALT Tools No. 17 race car. According to Ludwig, they "have helped set up the car, worked on the suspension changes, some body changes, and changed tires with the pit crew."
"I've learned so much just by coming here," said Dwyer. "Working with the guys is great. Everything they do, they explain to us."
The students also have had the unique opportunity to meet and spend some time with the driver of their race car Matt Kenseth. Dwyer summarized his time with Kenseth, "He's a really nice guy. He's quiet but he's really cool."
On race day at Pocono Raceway, the students will continue their unique experiences, sitting atop the pit box and listening to the calls that the crew chief and team will make throughout the race.
Ludwig summarized his experience, saying "It shows that you can accomplish a lot if you work hard for it." Dwyer continued on his partner's theme, "If any one person sets their mind to do something, they can achieve it."
There is no doubt that these two students, having had thier experience of a lifetime, will achieve great things wherever their career and life paths take them.
Roush Fenway owner Jack Roush summed it up best. "They have the character and drive it takes to be a winner in life on and off the racetrack," said Roush.
Roush continued, "For this reason we are proud to joining DeWALT, Ford, and AAA in encouraging more students to consider career choices in motorsports, automotive repairs, and roadside problem solving."
Photo Credit: Mary Jo Buchanan From left to right, pictured are Justin Dwyer, Matt Ludwig and teacher Mark Lessman.