ST. ALBANS — Northwest Technical Center students Chandler L’Esperance and Tucker Lewis are sitting pretty as the new Vermont state winners of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition.

L’Esperance, a Bellows Free Academy senior from Fairfield, and Lewis, a BFA junior from Alburgh, are in their second and final year in NWTC’s automotive trades program. They were among 200 students from 16 technical centers across Vermont to take a qualifying exam for the Ford/AAA competition in February, and in March, they learned they would be one of the ten teams to compete in the state finals.

As it turns out, L’Esperance had the highest test score in the state and Lewis wasn’t far behind.

“We got the highest combined score,” said Lewis in a joint interview Monday.

The next challenge was the hands-on, auto repair competition earlier this month. The two students studied for weeks using a computerized automotive manual, paper diagrams, planned out scenarios and even a model of the competition vehicle – a 2015 Ford Fiesta – that John Barrette, owner of Barrette Ford in Swanton, allowed L’Esperance and Lewis to look over.

“Mr. V basically told us to study fuses and relays,” said Lewis in reference to his and L’Esperance’s instructor, Adam Vincelette.

“Anything and everything, we knew how to take apart and fix it,” said L’Esperance.

The two demonstrated their knowledge just over a week ago at the New England Dragway in Epping, N.H. on May 9. L’Esperance and Lewis described feeling hurried but confident during their 90 minutes to diagnose and repair any problems. Things were looking good, for instance, when the car started right away.

“We were expecting it not to start,” said L’Esperance. “That was like, 100 problems right there that were poof, gone.”

There were other challenges to be met, though, including a misfiring cylinder, broken headlights and signal lights, malfunctioning cigarette lighters and windows, and most frustrating, an air-conditioning vent glued shut. L’Esperance and Lewis noticed other teams simply fixing a few of the 10 identical problems each car had before pushing it over the finish time with line remaining, but they decided to take their time.

“We were going for the perfect car,” said L’Esperance.

L’Esperance and Lewis got to everything except the vent and the back windows – in a harried last few minutes, L’Esperance was using all his strength to try to get the car’s radio out to diagnose the vent issue, though he was unsuccessful.

“I’m surprised that thing didn’t rip right off,” said L’Esperance. As it turned out, it was bolted in place.

When their car did cross the line, the two boys weren’t happy about their performance – they received seven demerit points for their two repairs undone and an accidental chip in a replaced taillight.

“We were both pretty upset,” said L’Esperance. The boys then set about making all the other repairs they didn’t get to finish, which the competition requires after the timed portion is over.

“We were both pretty grumpy,” said L’Esperance. When the competition results began to be announced, though, both students were surprised to not hear their names in the 10th, 9th or 8th spots.

“[We thought], maybe we’ll be top five – we’ll be able to show our faces at school again,” said L’Esperance.

The results kept coming, but their names were not read out. “We looked at each other and said, we’re either dead last or we just won,” said L’Esperance.

He added, “And we won.”


Next competition

In addition to grabbing a first place trophy, over $30,000 in scholarships and a backpack full of tools and a ratchet set, Lewis and L’Esperance won an all-expenses paid trip to Dearborn, Mich., and a spot in the National Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills Competition June 6th-8th.

“That was wicked awesome,” said L’Esperance.

He and Lewis are now studying for the next round, which includes a 100-question test and another 90-minute auto repair session, though this time it will be on a 2015 Ford Mustang. Both students have goals for the national competition, including improving their performance.“

Even though we took first [in Vermont], we still didn’t feel like we did our best,” said Lewis.

“We’re shooting for top 10,” said L’Esperance. When asked what the prize for first was, both L’Esperance and Lewis almost didn’t dare to dream about winning it: an all-paid trip, on a private jet, to a NASCAR pit crew, where they would get to help out for a week. There would be scholarships, too.

“Oh, man,” said L’Esperance, just thinking of it.

They both have incentives to study hard, and in addition, Lewis and L’Esperance said they have the best instructor to help them prepare.

“He is so smart,” L’Esperance said of Vincelette. “Anything and everything he can figure out and excel at. And it’s not just mechanical stuff – he understands us and how we work.”

The students said they have all the tools they could ever need in the shop, and they also have plenty of experience with live, automotive repair work. BFA teachers often bring their malfunctioning cars to the NWTC auto repair shop, and Vincelette uses those vehicles as teaching opportunities with his students.

In general, Lewis and L’Esperance attribute their success in the Ford/AAA competitions – as well as their likely futures in the automotive industry – to Vincelette.

“I don’t think you could ask for much more from him,” said L’Esperance.