Joshua Beeler of Raymond turned the ignition of the immaculate white 2011 Ford F150 pickup and waited for his scan tool to identify the problem.

Nothing.

Beside him, Anthony Perron of Scarborough sat impatiently, suggesting possible scenarios.

A third turn of the ignition switch flashed a code on the scan tool: a malfunction in the evaporative emissions purge solenoid, which transfers gas fumes to the engine rather than the atmosphere.

That was the problem, but the recent graduates of the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center would have to do additional tests to determine the cause and the way to repair it.

The scenario was just a test that instructor Carter Waldren put together, the kind of challenge the teenagers will face next week at the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills national competition in Dearborn, Mich.

Beeler and Perron won the Maine championship last month, first winning an online competition to become one of 10 teams competing for the title. They finished first in the competition held May 14 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., with a perfect score.

That competition — and the one in Michigan — involve more than diagnosing and fixing a problem under intense time pressure.

The real challenge is to be precise.

The car must be restored to factory condition. That means no plastic clips broken, no screws left out, no trim out of place.

Where Beeler is a soft-spoken whiz with a scan tool and a wiring diagram, Perron is anxious to have his hands in the guts of the machine, working out the bugs.

Perron learned simple jobs like changing oil and brakes from his father, a master mechanic, when he was just 11 or 12. Beeler grew up around snowmobiles and dirt bikes, and the repairs that go with them.

Both graduated from the vocational center last month, and both have landed jobs in their field.

Perron applied to Rowe Ford the day after he won the state competition and has been offered a position. Beeler works for Ossipee Trail Motor Sales in Gorham.

Both credit the automotive program in Westbrook for teaching them the complex skills needed to figure out and fix a wide variety of mechanical and electrical problems.

They are excited about the trip to Michigan, as much for the opportunity to visit the car and truck mecca as for the chance to compete.

Perron is looking forward to watching the Detroit Tigers play; he has never been to a major league game. Beeler is eager to tour the Henry Ford Museum. They also will get to tour the River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, where the F150 is made.

In the national competition, teams from all 50 states take a written test, then have a hands-on competition on the front lawn of the Ford World Headquarters.

For winning the state meet, Perron and Beeler got tools and about $35,000 each in scholarship money, according to AAA of Northern New England. The national winners will earn scholarship money and a chance to job-shadow the Roush Fenway Racing team.

Waldren may be as excited as his students, and as proud. Sitting on his cluttered desk is the last first-place auto skills trophy won by a team from Westbrook — in 1977. He knows what it takes to get to the top.

Today’s cars are engineered for efficiency and performance, not for easy repairs.

“This is extremely complicated,” Waldren said. “There’s nothing easy about fixing the computer systems on the cars. … When you go to fix it, you have to become the engineer who designed the car to understand how to fix it.”

The teams will arrive in Dearborn with no tools of their own, just a laptop and a DVD with the wiring diagram and service protocols for a 2011 Ford F150.

There is a practical side for the public in the competition, said Pat Moody, spokesman for AAA of Northern New England.

Americans are driving their cars longer, so they have an increasing need for reliable repairs. Nearly half of the respondents in a recent national survey said their cars have at least 100,000 miles.

Beeler and Perron and students like them are the future.

Beeler plans to enroll in the Ford Asset program, the regional certification program run out of Central Maine Community College in Auburn.

Perron, while working at Rowe Ford, has opted to enroll in Southern Maine Community College’s automotive technology program.

“Most teenagers can’t use a screwdriver. Most teenagers don’t know how to put a drill bit into a drill,” Waldren said. “I think it’s great there are these kids who fix stuff and are thinking this way.” 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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