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Taylor County student headed to NASCAR Technical Institute

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'She ain’t scared to skin a knuckle.'

By Leslie Moore

 

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Watching NASCAR races has been a weekly tradition for Autumn Anderson that began long before it was legal for her to drive. Though she loves the excitement of watching the cars reach speeds upwards of 175 mph as her favorite drivers, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, fight for the checkered flag, it was during a commercial break that Autumn’s heart would really start racing.

“I saw a commercial for the NASCAR Technical Institute,” Autumn said.

She went straight to the school’s website and knew right then that she had found the place that she had been unknowingly preparing for since she was just a toddler.

When she was barely old enough to walk and talk, Autumn would beg her father, Jimmy, to take her for a ride in his go-kart. When she was 7 years old, Jimmy taught her how to drive one. She hasn’t slowed down since.

“[Autumn] would jump in my lap and want to ride,” Jimmy said. “Ever since she’s been able to walk, she’s liked to race cars.”

A senior at Taylor County High School, Autumn enrolled in the Green County Area Technology Center’s welding program during her junior year. There, she quickly “fell in love” with welding, and later added the computerized manufacturing and machining program.

“Autumn excels in all the basic welding skills and practices I teach,” Steven Thomas, welding instructor, said. “She is a master with the technology we have like programming the CNC plasma cutter to make and design parts for different projects we do.”

Thomas said Autumn has also mastered the practice of reading and working from blueprints and sketches. Presently, she is working to improve her fabrication skills and precision welding with the gas tungsten arc welding, commonly referred to as the GTAW process. She recently led her fabrication team in the regional Skills USA competition to a top 5 finish.

After requesting information from the NASCAR Institute’s Charlotte, N.C., campus, Autumn was soon contacted by an admission’s counselor who set up an entrance interview. She learned last month that she had been accepted into the renowned institute, and is looking forward to starting the 18-month program this fall.

“We first all start working on motors, then we go to the electricity stuff,” Autumn said. “We’ll work on regular cars first, then we’ll get to the pit crew and NASCAR stuff.”

Thomas said he can’t take all the credit for Autumn’s success in the program because several instructors, as well as her father, have aided in her education and skill development. Thomas credits former welding instructor Brandon Bardin, now principal of Marion County’s Area Technology Center, with teaching her a lot of the basics during her first year in the welding program.

Barry Porter, instructor for the computerized manufacturing and machining program, said he has enjoyed working with Autumn, and that she is more than capable of holding her own in the NASCAR Institute’s rigorous program.

“She’s just a real go-getter,” Porter said. “She understands that blueprinting was very important and excelled at that.”

According to Porter, Autumn’s knack for putting something on paper and then creating it will work in her favor as she goes on to compete with some of the country’s top mechanic students.

“She sets her goals high, and she reaches for them,” Porter said.

Thomas said he asked all of the seniors in the welding program what their future plans were, and customized their lessons around projects and settings they will encounter in their area.

“In NASCAR, at times welds and parts need to be made fast and with no faults,” Thomas said. “I do something I call speed tests, where the student is given a print or part needing to be welded or built.”

Thomas said the key is that it has to be completed in a certain amount of time with zero mistakes and no safety rules broken.

“Autumn always performs and scores well under pressure,” Thomas said.

Kelly Smith, Autumn’s English teacher at TCHS, says Autumn also stands out in the academic classroom. Smith said Autumn is very goal-oriented, and it shows whenever she is given a new assignment or project to work on.

“She makes sure she understands exactly what’s expected, and she gets it done,” Smith said. “She is just a really good student and she has a very positive outlook on life.”

Though Autumn’s mother, Lisa, is thrilled that Autumn has been accepted into the institute, she has mixed feelings about her youngest daughter moving to another state.

“Oh, I’ve got mixed emotions,” Lisa said. “I’m very proud of her, but with the way the times are right now, I’m kind of scared.”

Her father feels the same way.

“Going to North Carolina? No, Daddy ain’t crazy about it,” Jimmy said. “But that’s what she wants to do, she wants to be around racing.”

Jimmy said he is already proud of Autumn because next month she will follow in her older siblings’ footsteps by getting her high school diploma – something he did not do.

Jimmy said he realizes that going to the NASCAR Institute is too great of an opportunity for Autumn to pass up, but he has already given her fair warning that she is to call home at least twice a week.

If she doesn’t, Jimmy said he will borrow his buddy’s Harley Davidson motorcycle for a trip to North Carolina.

“She ain’t scared to skin a knuckle,” Jimmy said. “Sometimes being a mechanic and stuff like that, you can’t be scared to skin a knuckle.”

Autumn’s aunt, Dorothy Lowe, said it will be difficult for her once she leaves, but loves that Autumn is getting to pursue her dream.

“I can tell you one thing, if Aunt Margaret was alive, she’d be so proud of her,” Lowe said.

NASCAR Team Relations Director John Dodson said about 5 percent of the institute’s student population are women, and that there is also a female instructor.

When a young person packs up and moves to another state for their education, Dodson said, it says a lot about their determination.

“I know Autumn has some experience already with go-kart racing, and she loves working on engines,” Dodson said. “We’re just real excited to get her.”

Autumn said there is still much for her to learn before she can call herself a mechanic, but she is looking forward to one day competing with the country’s top mechanics for a spot on Kyle Busch’s or Carl Edwards’ pit crew.

“Working on a go-kart is much simpler than working on a car,” Autumn said. “I’ve pretty much got that stuff down pat. A car – I’ve still got a little bit to learn about that.”

But Thomas said he is without a doubt that Autumn has skills and determination necessary to achieve her goal. He said this can especially be seen when the class practices its skills in adverse conditions.

“When it’s cold and windy we go outside and work just like in the real world,” Thomas said.

“Autumn cuts and welds on the nasty, greasy projects we have in the shop with no complaints because she knows this is part of it, and this is what it takes to get to the top. The fact that she is a girl doesn’t hold her back from any task in this field mainly dominated by men.”