Local students find the need for speed in revolutionary new program

Local students find the need for speed in revolutionary new program
Some of the white paint has chipped off thanks to a fresh scuffle last Saturday and the tires still bear the mud of a weekend’s hard-fought race, but one important acronym stretched across the back of the car remains unharmed. It is the word that has come to encompass the heart and soul of a new program offered at the Tennessee Technology Center in McKenzie. The word is S.P.E.E.D., Student Program for Excellence in Educational Development, but in order to become part of the team and experience the feel of the raceway, students must first demonstrate the ability to stay on the road to success in school. Dresden native Eric Essary and TTC automotive department instructor Dan Townsend traveled to Wisconsin to see this program in action before attempting to implement it at TTC. “I took the automotive classes and towards the end, I went to Dan and talked to him about getting a racing team together. It’s not only enjoyable for us, but it’s a way to promote the automotive program here. We got the paperwork together and got the sponsors, Essary’s Gas Station, Culver Farm, Dresden 4X4, McClain’s Tires and Automotive, Ray Smith’s Chevrolet, Republic Door, Tim Barcroft, the service manager of Peppers Automotive and, of course, the biggest sponsor, TTC,” Essary explained. Essary and Townsend saw, in their trip to Wisconsin, a high school automotive department that was once considered dead become revitalized by this program. Students were allowed to be involved in the program if they maintained good grades and cut down their discipline problems. “Dan and I saw that this program really worked, so we brought back some of the ideas we saw and started our program in June of last year,” Essary said. Now Essary, a future NASCAR hopeful, is the driver of a street stock class car and along with his team of first and second year TTC students, goes to races every Saturday alternating between Clayhill Motorsports in Atwood and Milan Speedway. Racing in the street stock class, the team must follow certain rules regarding suspension, stock mounts and the engine. The car is categorized in the middle level of classes that run every night. But, the program is about much more than just racing and feeling the thrill of victory. Its ultimate goal is to interest incoming high school students in highly skilled, high wage and high demand jobs in the automotive industry. TTC articulates a series of preparatory classes with two of the high schools in the service area and these courses will allow high school graduates to enter the TTC Automotive Technology Program with advanced standing. The enticement to take these classes in high school will be the opportunity to participate in the S.P.E.E.D. program after the students graduate from high school. One hundred percent of the automotive graduates in McKenzie were placed in related jobs last year. “We’re really just getting off the ground with this,” Essary admitted. “Right now, high school students who are interested and who show they can step it up a bit in the classroom can come into the program upon the teacher’s agreement. It’s a two-year course, but everything is done twice so if you work hard enough, you can get the curriculum in in a year.” Currently, the program’s four main helpers include Kenny Brewer, Shawn Collins, Brandon Schultek and Jesse James. They travel to the track with Essary. Brewer and Collins are nearing the finish line of taking classes at TTC, but Schultek and James are still rookies. In addition to the main car loaned to the team by Harold Sullivan, Essary’s older brother Adam purchased a car and the team members have taken it upon themselves to start work on it as soon as possible. “We’re still setting up. We’re still learning,” Essary admitted. Classes come into the automotive department and Townsend talks to them. Thus far, automotive instructors from Henry County and Huntingdon have expressed interest. “We were supposed to get a grant, but it didn’t go through so we’re hoping for sponsors,” Essary said. “We’re running on old tires right now and we have enough money to run for a while, but fuel gets expensive of course.” Essary, nicknamed Ricky Bobby by his friends, took an additional welding class to further prepare him for a possible career in NASCAR. He will turn 21 this coming up Saturday, another race day. Growing up in a family-owned gas station, having a passion for cars seemed to come naturally and it is this passion that has carried over into helping others harbor a passion for accelerating in the automotive program and school. “The automotive program at TTC is one of the top programs in the state,” he said. “There’s a lot of promise to this if you just keep at it.” Townsend summed up his feelings by going back to the one word that started it all — S.P.E.E.D. “This was a name developed by all of the students together to describe what this program is really all about,” he said. For more information on the S.P.E.E.D. program, contact TTC at McKenzie at 731-352-5364.

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