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REVVING HER ENGINE: Girls Enjoy Being Gearheads, Too

The full set of acrylic nails Ashley Pawlowski got before going to the senior prom with her boyfriend is not quite so full. The nail on her left pinky has come off and the air-brushed french manicure is chipping away. This, said the 17-year-old Canton, Mich., High School junior, comes from repeatedly washing oil and grease off her hands with an acetone-based soap. Ashley is a “gearhead,” slang for self-professed auto mechanic junkies whose tastes range from routine maintenance to restoring old cars to high performance engineering.

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From Detroit Free Press

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CANTON, MI — The full set of acrylic nails Ashley Pawlowski got before going to the senior prom with her boyfriend is not quite so full. The nail on her left pinky has come off and the air-brushed french manicure is chipping away.

This, said the 17-year-old Canton, Mich., High School junior, comes from repeatedly washing oil and grease off her hands with an acetone-based soap.

Ashley is a “gearhead,” slang for self-professed auto mechanic junkies whose tastes range from routine maintenance to restoring old cars to high performance engineering. Ashley works on engines in the school’s automotive services lab.

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She started the Advanced Automotive Technology Club last fall at the school for her like-minded peers. Although she’s the only girl in the club, several other girls take automotive classes.

“I just thought it’d be great for people who are into cars, but don’t have the time to take the class,” Ashley said.

The group enters drag races as part of the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park Drag Racing Team that recently competed at the May 8 state championship at the Milan Race Track and won the overall championship. They also clean up the automotive services shop if necessary.

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Ashley said she wanted students and gearheads to know “there’s nothing to be scared of what’s behind the vocational tech doors.”

Ashley is the club’s secretary, whose membership has stalled at about 15-20 students because of a lack of advertising, she said. She hopes to become president of the club by next year, but said she admits the current president knows more about cars than she does.

“The nice thing about the club . . . is some come here because they think it’s an easy class . . . the passionate gearheads, that’s what the club is geared for,” said Jim O’Connor, one of three automotive services teachers who sponsor the club.

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“It was long overdue,” he said.

Ashley is one of about 12 female students out of about 400 enrolled in the six automotive services classes at Canton High School.

She said she started working on engines with an uncle who used to race stock cars a few years ago, and still helps her father with his trucks.

“It’s just been coming quite natural to me,” she said about the classes since she started taking them her sophomore year. “Anything from carburetors to brakes . . . if it’s got an engine, it can be restored.”

Perhaps the most difficult thing about working on cars, Ashley said, is being a girl in the shop.

“I get criticized by a lot of guys down here cause I’m a girl,” she said. “At first it was kind of weird. . . . Guys look at girls assuming we can’t do this.”

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“There needs to be more women in the automotive services,” she added during a tour of the shop.

“We keep the guys in line,” O’Connor said.

“She just found something she was good at,” said Mike Duffy, Ashley’s current automotive services teacher.

Since Ashley started taking the classes, her grades have gone from “below a 1.0” to hovering around the 3.0 to 3.5 range. She also recently received a Turnaround Achievement Award from the Plymouth-Canton school district, honoring her performance.

She plans to pursue advanced degrees in mechanical engineering when she graduates and possibly even attend a college for NASCAR pit crews.

Annette Knorp, the vice president of operations and franchising for American Transmissions, has never met Ashley, but was impressed by her effort in starting the club.

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“It’s always been a man’s world,” she said, echoing Ashley’s sentiments. “I think it’s great.”

Knorp grew up with American Transmissions, a family business with two shops currently run by her brother in Plymouth, Mich., and Garden City, Mich. She said she even helped her father restore a car when she was in high school, before getting into the corporate side of the business.

Knorp said she hopes to offer routine maintenance classes for women at the shops “to give them a little bit of knowledge, so they’re not so intimidated” when they visit the mechanic.

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With the school year coming to a close, Ashley is helping seniors with their final projects, but she’ll keep the nails for upcoming graduation parties and possibly for her family’s summer trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C.

In the past week she helped work on the brake lines of a 1969 Plymouth Fury III being restored by her classmate Derek Hickey, who doesn’t understand how she works with the nails. “That’s weird,” said Derek, a 17-year-old Canton senior.

But he said, “It’s cool to see chicks that are into cars . . . cause they don’t like to get dirty.”

“She stays clean a lot though.”

The Automotive Services instruction at Canton High School offers six courses, ranging from the entry-level automotive services class, which teaches routine maintenance, to advanced automotive services and custom painting and body work.

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Ford Motor Co. has donated prototype Lincoln LS sedans for the students to work on. But one thing still is missing.

“I’ve been screaming for an alignment rack for years,” said Mike Duffy, who has been a teacher at Canton High School’s Automotive Services lab for 10 years.

He said the students who go on to advanced automotive engineering study when they graduate are at a disadvantage. He’s discussed the procedure with them and has taken students to see it done, “but that’s not the same as doing it. That’s like learning to ride a bike with no bike.”

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Duffy said an alignment rack costs about $30,000, but the yearly budget for automotive services is about $8,000. There are about 400 students enrolled in the program.

Copyright 2004 Detroit Free Press. All Rights Reserved.

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