The 25th annual Top Wrench event drew 500 students from 14 schools to McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base for automotive competitions and an opportunity to explore future careers.
Heritage High School students won first place in the painting competition and second in welding.
In addition to the competitions, students tour the base, network with various business owners and hear throughout the day the main message about the importance of remaining drug free, a central focus of founder Joe Marshall. Garages and three race teams had displays, as well as the Knoxville Area Corvair Club.
“Basically the students are networking, finding ways for their futures,” said Ray Kear, one of the many volunteers for the event Thursday. “The students love working on engines, and at Top Wrench they see, you can do that and make a living, make a career,” Kear said.
Skilled craftsmen are always in demand, he said, and a first-year mechanic can earn as much as a first-year lawyer.
Organizers often see former attendees working at body shops, garages and even with the Guard.
In the group competitions, students needed not only technical knowledge but also teamwork, communication, problem-solving and creative thinking skills, all emphasized throughout the Top Wrench event.
At the static engine station, teams of four had to figure out three problems that prevented a 454 big block from starting. Times generally averaged between two and seven minutes, but the teams with the longer times still had great skill, said Tech Sgt. Cameron Lale. “They’re taking their time and doing it the right way,” he said. The Grainger County team won that competition with a time of 1 minute, 42 seconds.
Early in the engine diagnostic competition, the electronic scanner failed while Heritage High School was competing. The rest of the day teams competed without the scanner. Because HHS finished fourth even with the extra challenge, Top Wrench plans to give that team recognition too.
HHS junior Chandler Clark won first place in the mailbox painting competition with an entry titled “Thin Blue Line,” featuring a waving flag design. Clark couldn’t attend Top Wrench because of testing at the high school.
Heritage welders take second place
A team of first-year-welding students from HHS took second place in the welding competition with a “rat rod” style of custom car model that used old grinder parts to represent the engine. Sophomores Brayan Sanchez, Gilmore Ortiz and Jacob Riley, who had worked after school to finish their car for the competition, also were unable to attend because of testing.
“They had to learn about what a rat rod is in addition to learning how to cut and put metal together,” said teacher John Davis.
Members of the East Tennessee Region Antique Auto Club of America served as judges for the painting and welding competitions.
Quick tire change
In the pit crew challenge with Adam Boatman Racing, each team had to change a wheel with three lug nuts. While most teams completed the task in about 30 seconds, Boatman said the fastest were “calm, cool and collected.”
Union County finished first with a time of 20.47 seconds. “We practiced like crazy at school,” said junior Blake Hensley. At school, he said, they could change a tire with five lug nuts in 18 seconds flat. For their first-place finish they received an added prize of a door panel from Boatman’s No. 75 car.
While the participants were overwhelmingly male, Caroline Allen was part of Copper Basin High School’s team for the static engine challenge. She said she took the high school automotive class because “I wanted to be able to do things on my own.” Allen, a senior, is planning a career as a whitewater rafting guide.
Top Wrench has numerous sponsors, including the Air National Guard and East Tennessee Foundation.
This year Lincoln College of Technology/Nashville Auto-Diesel College provided scholarships to winners in the static engine, engine diagnostic, painting and welding competitions to students who choose to go to that school, with $7,500 for every first-place team member, $5,000 for second, $2,500 for third and $2,000 for fourth- through 10th. The college also is offering Top Wrench participants a $500 scholarship.