March 18, 2010

Shaping the minds of today's youth is not a task to be taken lightly. The results may not be evident today or tomorrow, but down the road, it will have a significant impact on both the individual and the nation as whole.

While the vast majority of high school graduates gravitate towards traditional collegiate institutions, students seeking careers in the automotive industry will find far fewer centers for higher learning. Thanks to its far-reaching advertising in television and radio, the Universal Technical Institute and Wyotech schools have become quite popular. However there is another option for those who are hoping to make a living in the automotive industry-one that fuels the soul with a combustible, high-octane mix of engine theory, machining, assembly, and probably most important, hands-on testing.

The School of Automotive Machinists (SAM) started out in Judson Massingill's garage, where a number of his friends requested his help in building their engines. From there, working on engines took him to employment at a machine shop that he eventually bought. Northwest Engine and Supply served the greater Houston, Texas, area and beyond, as Massingill often found himself building engines for marine applications in addition to auto racing. "We had some customers who had a lot of money and would pay Judson to go to the races," says SAM Director Linda Massingill. "He started teaching some customers small things to help them diagnose problems so he didn't have to fly out. In addition to that, two of Judson's long-term employees wanted to branch out and start their own businesses." At that point, six employees had already left to do the same.

"All I do is teach everyone what to do and then they leave. We should start a school," said Judson. Linda agreed, and the machine shop helped subsidize the school for a few years until the school took off. A handful of core customer projects remain to this day, which helps introduce new applications to the students, but the main business is the school.

"We started out with about 30 students the first year (1985) and were given approval by the Texas Education Agency as an official school in 1989," says Linda Massingill. The school also received accreditation status and approval by the Department of Education, enabling the students to apply for student loans and grants. SAM is also approved to train eligible veterans.

As things change in the industry, SAM adapts the course curriculum to the demands. The school started out with a block class, and added the cylinder head class shortly after. After expanding both of those classes, the school recently added an automotive engine/CNC machining course to the program.

SAM is not just some building where you learn to operate milling equipment. While that aspect is part of the curriculum, the School of Automotive Machinists is teaching the science of speed. You'll set down the hammer and screwdrivers and become proficient with the calculator and various mathematical equations that help you build both a better understanding of the internal combustion process, and a better engine as well.

To this end, sudents participate in various activities, such as the racing program and Engine Masters Challenge. "Wyotech and UTI paid for some big sponsorships on NHRA and cup cars," says Judson, "and I wanted to build a car, run it ourselves, and have the students do all of the work. We started with a '99 Camaro. I wanted to get a Mustang because we want to show that it's not Chevys, Fords, and Chryslers-they're all just air pumps to us. If the heads move air, then it's a good engine."

SAM's Mustang debuted at the 2005 NMRA season opener in Bradenton, Florida, and qualified Third in the competitive Hot Street class. It went on to win the Maple Grove, Pennsylvania, event that year, set a national elapsed time record, and has been a top contender in the class ever since.

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"We chose the naturally aspirated classes (NMRA Hot Street and NMCA Pro Stock) because those are the 'engine builder' classes," says Judson. "The students can get a real hands-on experience from dyno testing the engine to the organizing of the trailer to the track racing. There aren't many places that let you work on an 8-second car." Within the race team, the students also learn how to use and understand data-acquisition systems and weather-data systems at the track. The information collected is then utilized in a post-race analysis in the classroom.

Another competition the School of Automotive Machinists is involved in is Popular Hot Rodding magazine's Engine Masters Challenge. "We chose Engine Masters because you get compared to the best builders in the country," notes Judson. "In 2006-the first year we went-we made it to the finals. We've made the finals every year since; our best qualifying effort was Second place in 2009.

"The best part of participating in Engine Masters is that it really impresses potential employers of students. They see that the school and its students can build an engine that's competitive with the best in the business. Many of the teams competing already employ our graduates."

And speaking of potential employers, the whole staff participates in job placement for the students by placing calls to those in the industry. "We also help the students with job applications and resumes," says Linda Massingill. "Our annual dinner at PRI is designed to put the students in contact with potential employers." At least 15 or so graduates now work for Roush Industries, while others went to John Force Racing, Kuntz and Company, Warren Johnson Enterprises, KB Racing (Greg Anderson and Jason Line), Arrington Engines, Katech, Lingenfelter Performance Engineering, Pat Musi Performance, Scott Shafiroff Race Engines, Dale Earnhardt, Hendrick Motorsports, Wiseco, Total Engine Airflow, Joe Gibbs Racing, and BES. Roush/Yates and even the monster truck Gravedigger's team have benefitted from SAM students.

"Some of our graduates leave and open their own businesses," says Linda Massingill. "Daryl White graduated and started Revolutionary Power and Machine in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. David Lazear graduated and started Gulf Coast Race engines in Pensacola, Florida. Bryan Neelen and Pecos Loughlin met at the school as students and left to start Late Model Engines of Houston, Texas. Erik Koenig opened HK Enterprises in Houston, Texas, while Joe Soller started Champion Performance, which specializes in Nationwide-series engine building."

With over 1,000 students having passed through the doors and graduated, the school has been quite a success. Though most students go on to seek employment in the industry, the same infectious enthusiasm that we experienced during our tour has led several students to job opportunities at the school. Instructors Shawn Hooper, Spencer Allen, Casey Snyder, and Chris Bennett, and admissions coordinator David Saunders are all SAM graduates that have stayed or returned to the school.

As the School of Automotive Machinists continues to deliver a well-trained, and well-educated graduate to the high-performance world, Judson and Linda Massingill continue to look for ways to improve the school and its students. "We're working on getting an associate's degree for the students, and possibly add a chassis program to the course schedule," says Linda Massingill. "There seems to be a lot of requests to take a chassis course, says Judson. "The CNC program is going to get bigger for sure."

When it comes to employment in the automotive world, some enjoy the visceral thrill of being behind the wheel, but there's an equal amount of talented people who are intrigued with how things work, and how to make such things better, stronger and faster. The latter is the potential School of Automotive Machinists graduate. Their education at full speed begins now.

Straight From The Students
SAM student Dean Underwood hails from St. Louis, Missouri, and has always been interested in cars in general. "I saw an article in a magazine about how the school took the car to the track," says Underwood. "After visiting here, I realized that it's not just about bolting stuff together. Machining was a bigger part of it." Since then, he has been attending the school and has completed the block and cylinder head class. Underwood is now halfway through the CNC program. "I'd like to focus on engine building and work on race engines," notes Underwood. "My dream job would be in Nascar. There's a lot to learn there." With the school's great placement program, he just might get there.

SAM student Andrew Bishop of Belton, Texas, heard about the school when his buddy saw an ad in a Mustang magazine. "My friend Thomas Howell turned me on to it," says Bishop. "When I got here, I was hooked. I sat through the block class and was impressed with the way Judson approached it with logic and reason, and doesn't impart emotion when discussing the topic." Bishop opted to take the 9-month-long block and cylinder-head classes consecutively to allow him more time in the race shop working on the project cars. "School trips are a blast," notes Bishop. "It's one thing to hear it in the classroom, and another to see the racer at the track making physical use of the techniques and applications." Now finishing up the CNC course, Bishop hopes to stay on at the school after graduation. "It's ironic that you come here to learn things to use on the outside, but you don't want to leave-all of the information is here. I used to have a Cobra Mustang that I would take to the track, but I realized that I didn't know anything after taking the block class.

With over 1,000 students having passed through the doors and graduated, the school has been quite a success

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