April 30, 2014 - For the second straight year, students from Oxford High School's automotive program have won a state championship and secured a spot in the national competition in June.
Oxford High School seniors Mike Smith (left) and Alan LaBarge (right) won the state finals for the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition. Between them is proud auto instructor Dan Balsley. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
Last week, OHS seniors Mike Smith and Alan LaBarge won the state finals of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition held at the Macomb Community College Expo Center in Warren.
"It was a pretty cool feeling," LaBarge said.
"I was impressed with their performance," said Auto Instructor Dan Balsley. "They just work really well together."
Smith and LaBarge also walked away with a trophy for having the highest score in the state on the competition's written exam.
"They gave away four trophies and we took home both of the first place ones," Balsley said. "There was only one other team in my career that had a clean sweep like that. This is just an amazing finish for us."
In addition to trophies, medals and bragging rights, the students also received $31,500 in scholarship offers. Ohio Technical College, the University of Northwestern Ohio and Universal Technical Institute each offered them $10,000 scholarships, while Ranken Technical College offered $1,500.
LaBarge and Smith competed against two-man teams from nine other schools in a hands-on event during which they had 90 minutes to diagnose and repair a variety of electrical and mechanical defects (i.e. bugs) purposely placed in a 2014 Ford Fiesta.
Repairs must be made with the highest quality workmanship in the lowest total time. The team with the fewest demerits for workmanship and the best combined score for repair time and written exam wins.
Smith and LaBarge finished in 1 hour, 20 minutes and had the distinction of having the only "clean car," meaning they correctly diagnosed and repaired all of the bugs.
"There were only two other cars that ever made it into judging and of the three, ours was the only clean car," Balsley said. "The other two had to go back for repairs."
"The competition was much tougher than it was last year," he added. "Some of the cars never left the field. There were four cars that had their hoods up at the end of the competition."
According to Balsley, LaBarge and Smith had virtually everything diagnosed and fixed within the first hour.
"They were making good progress and taking care of all the bugs," he said. "They were moving along smoothly and giving bad parts to the line judge and he was giving them good parts."
However, it was locating and repairing the last bug that put Smith and LaBarge in a holding pattern for a while.
"(The team's progress) just kind of stopped for about 20 minutes," Balsley said. "That was really tense and difficult to watch."
"(The bug) was hard to find," Smith said. "It was pretty difficult."
"It was in a good spot," LaBarge said. "It was not somewhere where you would have expected it to be."
Because other states have yet to hold their Ford/AAA competitions, neither the students nor Balsley are allowed to divulge the exact nature of the tricky bug that stumped them for so long,
"One of the judges told me after the competition that he thought no team would get it," Balsley said. "He came over and asked them how they figured it out. He was surprised that any team had figured it out."
"That (bug) made the difference," he noted. "They stuck with it. They made sure they got it and it made us the clean car. So, it was worth their time. Really, that's what wins the competition, not the fastest, but the cleanest. Clean cars win."
Competing at the state finals can be a nerve-racking experience, but LaBarge and Smith had two advantages that helped take the edge off.
One was that the Skalnek Ford dealership in Orion Township loaned them a 2014 Ford Fiesta to practice on. The pair spent weeks before, during and after school training on the vehicle and familiarizing themselves with every inch of it.
"It really helped that Skalnek let us borrow the Fiesta," Smith said. "We knew the car inside and out."
"When we got in the car (during the competition), I felt like I was back here in the auto shop practicing because we had done so much training with Mr. B over the past few weeks," LaBarge said.
"On Good Friday (when school was closed), we were here with Mr. B, working on it from 7 a.m. to 1:30 or 2 p.m.," noted Smith.
Balsley was grateful to Skalnek Ford for loaning them a practice vehicle this year and all the other years before.
"Without their continued support, there's no way we could finish as well as we have," he said. "It really makes all the difference for us. A big thank you to Skalnek Ford."
The other factor that helped Smith and LaBarge bring home the gold was having their very own cheering section. Twenty-four students, plus parents, went to the competition to support them.
"We just dominated the stands," Balsley said. "It was a lot of fun. We had a great time."
Having all eyes on them didn't bother Smith, who is used to wrestling and playing football in front of crowds.
"I've done so many sports that people watching (me) stopped bothering me a long time ago," he said.
There's no time for LaBarge and Smith to rest on their laurels. They have to begin preparing for the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills national finals June 8-10 in Dearborn. There they will face 49 other teams who finished first in their respective state competitions.
"I really think they have a good, strong chance," Balsley said. "These guys are not only book smart, which is obvious by their written scores, they are also really good with diagnostic skills and they work very well together. They bounce ideas off of each other."
"Of all the teams that I've had recently (in this competition), they were one of the easiest to work with," he added. "They arrive on time. They clean up after themselves. They are conscientious."
During his 27 years of teaching at OHS, Balsley believes he's had teams qualify for the Ford/AAA state finals about 25 times.
This was the fifth state championship.
He's yet to win a national championship.
"This will be my first," said Balsley, sporting a big grin.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.