In the shadows of two-story scaffolding and mega haulers on pit row, there is an old teacher’s desk and a canopy with timeworn car covers to form the walls. Standing behind the desk is Alvin Angulo reminding the teenage crew about an upcoming driver change.
As the Mazda Miata pulled into the pits at Thunderhill Raceway Park, the young men jumped over the wall to tend to the new driver’s safety equipment and connect the radio. Other crew members finished fueling and inspected the tires before sending the new driver on track.
The pit stop looked like any routine stop spectators would see during the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. But this group crewing on the Miata crew was led by teenage volunteers under the watchful eye of Angulo, who is training the automotive service industry’s next generation.
“If you walk up and down the pits, you see the money and the millions and millions of dollars that were spent to get a car there,” Angulo said. “We’re racing a Miata built by a bunch of high school kids, pit-crewed by high school kids on no money. We’re this low-budget operation, but yet our car is still going round and round.”
Finishing the grueling 25-hour race is a source of pride for Angulo, whose A+ Racing team took third place in E3 at the endurance race in 2017 despite an on-track accident, and second in E3 in 2016. The team has gone from not finishing the competition in the early years to expectations of being on the podium.
As the auto shop teacher for the students, Angulo is the glue that binds the group. The students are part of his automotive program in the Placer Union High School District in the Sierra foothills about 45 minutes east of Sacramento, California.
Shop classes in public high schools are increasingly rare as years of budget cuts and a higher-education focus by school districts took its toll on trade programs. When Angulo started teaching in 2002, the region had five auto programs and now has two. He teaches beginning and advanced automotive at Placer and Colfax high schools, where 130 students are enrolled in the program.
Industry estimates say American dealerships will need to hire at least 25,000 workers over the next five years. Because the shortage is significant, car manufacturers are having to recruit students for jobs that pay $100,000 a year for experienced technicians.
Angulo boasts a 90 percent placement rate for students that graduate from his two-year high school program. These are jobs that Amazon won’t be able to replace.
“As long as we’ve got transportation, we’re going to have to have people fixing them,” Angulo said. “The field that my students are going into is extremely high-tech, everything is run by computer controls, so they have to fully understand those systems.”
Students start the program learning about shop safety and sexual harassment. “I try to prepare them for what they’re going to expect in the workplace,” he said.
From there Angulo shows the students how to use the lift, floor jack and how to operate the tire machine and wheel balancer. Eventually students will learn about brakes, steering and suspension, electrical, engine, and engine performance.
Angulo places second-year students into jobs in the community to gain experience. If a student has an interest as an airplane mechanic, Angulo will find them a position at a local aviation firm. The student must create a cover letter and resume, and interview for the job.
Angulo also gives the students an opportunity to see a different side of the automotive service through his side business A+ Racing that rents Spec Miatas for track days. Prior to getting into teaching, Angulo was a Ford master technician, and he also raced motocross. As it got tougher to bounce back from injuries in motocross racing, Angulo started auto racing.
“I was not a very good car racer at the time,” Angulo said. ”So, the kids would come out to watch me race, but I would finish dead last.”
Angulo started taking classes and even rented out a track for the day, inviting five of the fastest drivers to help a group of slower drivers. The practice worked as Angulo started moving up to the middle of field with the occasional podium finish.
While honing his racing skills, Angulo noticed a number of Spec Miata cars being scrapped after crashes. Angulo started picking up the junked Miatas and it gave his students an opportunity to rebuild a wrecked car.
Students who rebuild a racecar can use the car they worked on at the track. “If they want to drive the car or they want to get their competition license in it, then they can use it,” he said. “They put time and effort into the car.”
Between Angulo and the student-led cars, his A+ Racing team has 12 track rental cars. Angulo estimates he probably owns 30 Mazda Miatas, so finding parts is as simple as going to the garage.
Angulo encourages his students to attend track days, but stresses their participation is voluntary because it’s outside regular school activities. He will pay students a daily rate to provide track support when he has several rental cars on track.
When most teachers use weekends to avoid students, Angulo believes it’s good for students to learn to work together toward a common goal.
“Having them being a part of my life on Saturday and Sunday, I don’t have any problem with that,” he said. “The same person that I am Monday through Friday is the same person I am on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Student Erik Marsh has helped with the racing team and said Angulo has high expectations. During one race weekend, Marsh was swapping engines and then doing brakes and tires.
“One of my favorite parts is meeting all the new people that come and rent the cars and talking to them,” said Marsh, who graduated Colfax High School in May.
For the 25 Hours of Thunderhill each December, Angulo relies on 24 to 30 student volunteers who usually come from his advance-level class. Angulo’s wife, Mary, coordinates the students’ jobs and the rest schedule for the weekend. Each student must know two jobs.
From the group of student volunteers, Angulo will pick eight to 10 students who will hop the wall during the endurance race. He stresses to his volunteers that the jobs behind the scenes are just as vital to finishing and winning the class. Those jobs include prepping drivers, organizing tires and being ready to work on the car, if necessary.
Angulo brings a donor car to the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, prepared for any emergency that might occur on the track. He’s surprised that other smaller-budget teams don’t bring a spare engine or transmission. “If anything goes wrong with that car, I have an entire parts department because I brought another car,” he said.
For the students who hop the wall into pit lane, they practice on weekends or after class so they are ready. Angulo requires a pit stop be completed in under 60 seconds—that includes swapping drivers. He emphasizes to the team to be safe and not make mistakes such as spilling fuel, which can bring a costly penalty.
“What we can’t have are mistakes on anything that has to do with safety, so the car has to be safe,” Angulo said. “I’m double checking and triple checking to make sure the job is done correctly before we can put a driver out there driving well over 100 mph.”
In the first few years participating in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, Angulo’s car never finished because of mechanical failures. They realized the Miata was being set up for shorter sprint races and not to withstand a day of endurance racing.
Angulo also gave up his spot behind the wheel because a crew chief had gotten sick and couldn’t participate. The team took third place in its class. The following year he served as crew chief and the team finished second.
“The drivers I had then asked me not to drive anymore,” Angulo said with a laugh. “I was voted off of my own team for driving.”
Angulo believes his move to crew chief helped solidify the team. He also credits Jeff Bemrose, who comes in from Texas to set up radios and lap timing equipment.
“The pit crew really responds to me because I have a lot of history with these students,” Angulo said. “We’ve been a part of each other’s lives for nine months and I think the amount of respect that they have for me and the way I run things it might have been different than it was for the crew chief manager.”
For this year’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill, Angulo’s team plans to step it up by running two cars in the endurance race. Former student Reese Todd, who has served as a chief mechanic for Angulo, will campaign the second car.
Angulo estimates he has “six to eight” former students working for professional race teams. They got their start volunteering for a race team and for 25 Hours of Thunderhill, they’ll earn a free T-shirt and meals from Toyo Tires.
The students walk away with a sense of accomplishment, especially when they see their well-heeled competitors are unable to finish the endurance race.
“To just finish the 25 Hours dang near brings tears to the face of an owner just because you know that you really accomplished something,” he said. “To turn the key at 11 o’clock on a Saturday and drive that car hard for 25 hours and turn it off on Sunday and it’s still running, that’s an amazing feat in and of itself.”
Angulo sees his role in getting his students, who range in age from 17 to 19, ready for an industry that is becoming increasingly high-tech. It requires Angulo to stay up on the latest technology and the support of private industry to provide students with the latest tools and technology.
Angulo wants to open his student’s eyes to the career opportunities in the transportation industry.
“Kids will always tell me, ‘I learned a lot more in your class than just cars, I learned about the type of person that I want to be and the work ethic that I want to have,” Angulo said.