Instead of celebrating their first days of summer vacation on the beach, Chris Bowerman and Nick Venzke have had their noses in the books and their heads under the hood.
Both recent Eastern Technical High School graduates have been meeting with their automotive tech teacher to practice for the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills national competition this month.
The two-student team won the state level of the competition April 22, giving Eastern Technical School two straight wins there. For the contest, the students had 90 minutes to diagnose a series of bugs placed in a car.
Since their triumph, Middle River residents Bowerman and Venzke have met in their classroom to go through car manuals and anticipate problems they might see in the national competition June 27 in Dearborn, Mich.
"As long as you know the system, it's easy to pinpoint where the problems are going to be," Venzke said. "You have to know all the different symptoms and everything that's happening in every situation."
A 3-foot-high trophy sits on a desk just inside Room 133 at Eastern Technical. State finals banners from this and last year partially cover the walls in the enormous classroom.
Four cars are parked in the auto shop. Bowerman, a quiet, thin 19-year-old, and Venzke, a tall 18-year-old, focus on a 2006 Ford Mustang, the model the boys will use for the competition.
Their teacher, Eldridge Watts, borrowed the car from Al Packer's White Marsh Ford to give the boys something to practice on. Some training sessions have involved hours at the dealership, where shop foreman Mike Hammen tries to simulate problems the Ford engineers might place in the cars for the competition.
"We're strictly going over possible bugs they might put in the vehicle," Hammen said. "They're very sharp. They should place very well."
Working with cars comes naturally for both. Bowerman works at Bill Kidds Timonium Toyota, and Venzke works at Magsamen's Auto and Truck Repair in Middle River.
The two have tentative plans for their futures. Venzke is interested in attending a four-year college, and Bowerman wants to attend the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville to earn an automotive degree. But both said where they go next depends on how much money they receive from the competition.
Students ranking within the top 10 at the national championships can be offered four-year college scholarships. Bowerman and Venzke have received $35,000 in scholarships that for use at six institutions specializing in auto technology, in addition to jackets and car repair tools. Their school won $5,000 for classroom equipment.
At the national competition, two-person teams from across the country race to diagnose 10 to 15 problems -- identical for every team -- within the cars. Once the problems are found and fixed, the participants will test-drive their cars for a judge. Bowerman and Venzke will also take a written test at the national competition.
The quality of work and each participant's test score determine a team's final ranking.
The young men will fly to Michigan on June 25. They will to tour the Ford factory and the Henry Ford Museum.
"It comes down to what you learned in automotive class," Bowerman said with a smile. "We'll see what happens there. I think we'll be OK."