Female hot rodder at home under the hood

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As NASCAR‘s past and present were on display at the inaugural NASCAR Acceleration Weekend, the sports’ future was well-represented by none other than high school junior Aileen Melendez of Anaheim, Calif., who showcased her engine building skills to a captive audience during the NASCAR Preview event.

“My parents love everything automotive, NHRA and NASCAR,” explained Melendez . “When I was a freshmen I had an extra elective, so my dad was like, ‘Why don’t you take automotive?'”
NASCAR Performance

It was good advice that’s paid off.

Now, three years later, Melendez knows what every young woman, well, auto know.

Melendez is a member of Loara High School’s automotive tech program. She is one of five students — the only female — that comprise “Team Moroso,” who tore down and rebuilt an engine in a record-breaking 21:08 to capture the title of 2011 Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Engine Challenge Champions this past November.

Launched in 2008, Hot Rodders of Tomorrow is a nationwide high school engine building contest which fosters the future development of today’s youth for the race and performance industry.

Each November at the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Show, the top 10 high school auto tech teams who advanced via regional competitions across the country compete head-to-head for the best average time as they tear down and rebuild Chevy 350 high performance engines. Teams, which are made up of five students plus an instructor/coach, must properly disassemble and reassemble the engine with aftermarket components in the least amount of time. Winning students earn scholarship money for college.

“We weren’t nervous at SEMA, we just did what we practiced and took it home,” said Melendez, who has won over $20,000 in scholarships through her participation in the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow program.

Since its inception, the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow program has worked hard to help grow a future base of performance enthusiasts for the motorsports and auto industry.

“My primary concern is that the people at the race track and in this industry as a whole are getting older,” said 40-year industry veteran Jim Bingham, chairman of Hot Rodders of Tomorrow. “You don’t see much young blood, and I wanted to create an avenue for bringing youth into the automotive aftermarket.”

Along with Bingham, automotive aftermarket industry pioneer Vic Edelbrock took an immediate interest in Hot Rodders. After witnessing the Hot Rodders competition five years ago, Edelbrock and daughter Christi were hooked on the program and helped expand the concept across the country.

“We are so proud to support these kids; providing an opportunity and changing lives is what it’s all about,” said Christi Edelbrock, VP of Business Development for Edelbrock. “It is our mission and passion to continue to grow this program by supporting America’s youth wherever and whenever possible.”

To date, Hot Rodders of Tomorrow has fostered a total of 152 teams in eight divisions consisting of 1,064 students from across the country and has raised more than $3.5 million in scholarship money. Twenty-three manufacturing sponsors are a part of the program.

The program also gives instructors an opportunity to grow enthusiasm in their school’s auto tech program.

According to Loara High School auto tech instructor Russ Bacarella, who trains the school’s Hot Rodders of Tomorrow team, any high school student can get involved.

“They don’t need to know how to use a ratchet or torque wrench coming in,” Bacarella said. “What I look for is dedication, a mindset that no matter what happens, they’ll continue to do their best. Our goal is to get the kids where they want to be. The youth really are our future, and we need to get them a trade, a skill, a profession and get them working.”

In addition to scholarship money and the championship title, NASCAR Performance and Edelbrock included a trip to Charlotte, N.C. for NASCAR Acceleration Weekend as part of the prize package for the Loara High School championship-winning team.

“The Acceleration Weekend is just a natural fit to show the students the passion and enthusiasm of our industry,” Edelbrock said. “It’s a great opportunity to show them what NASCAR is all about, the culture, the history, the shops and technology.”

For young automotive enthusiasts like Melendez, it was an opportunity to showcase her talents.

“I do the left side of the engine head,” explained Melendez, during a break from performing for NASCAR fans at the Preview event. “Then, after the engine is torn apart, I begin with the bottom reassembly. I put all the rod caps on, tighten them all down and torque them all down in sequence.”

“Then I help with whatever the boys are behind on,” she joked.

Jokes aside, Melendez is making it as woman in a place that’s traditionally very much a man’s world.

“The possibilities of what the automotive industry holds for these kids — guys and gals — as far as job placement and a career are endless,” Edelbrock said. “The kids can get focused on what the future holds for them, and to see these kids focused on a career in our industry is just second to none.”

During NASCAR Acceleration Weekend, Melendez and her teammates also attended the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and participated in a meet and greet with 2012 inductee Junior Johnson. They also toured NASCAR Technical Institute, the NASCAR R&D Center and Stewart-Haas Racing to gain valuable insight into what it takes to become a NASCAR team member.

“We’re from the other side of the country and this is new to all the kids,” Bacarella said. “They are seeing the magnitude of NASCAR and they understand there is a demand for their skill set. To see industry people like Doug Yates come up, high-five these kids and be truly impressed with their engine building talent gives them a great deal of confidence.”

“My dream job is in automotive,” Melendez said. “After seeing pit crew practice and the guys working in the shop at Stewart-Haas Racing, well, it’s just amazing what they do. They were fabricating everything by hand. They were all working together as a team just like we do.”

For Melendez, following dear ole dad’s advice continues to pay dividends.

“Going to exhibitions and seeing all the amazing cars, having relationship with the sponsors. I say thank you a million times to Hot Rodders and Edelbrock.”