The Niles West Auto Club Racing Team made high school racing history on Sept. 16 by becoming the champions of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) North Central Division Summit Racing Series Finals at the Lucas Oil Raceway Park in Indianapolis. The club took first place in the High School Division, making it the de facto National Champions in Division 3, which covers five Midwestern states.
Driver John Wheeler, who is also the club president, shocked NHRA veterans because he won driving a 1978 Dodge Aspen with a manual transmission.
“We are the only high school that has ever won this with a stick-shift car,” said Niles West auto teacher Tim Richmond, the team sponsor.
The Niles West award was also the only division title won by the 2012 teams representing Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wisconsin, host course to the Niles West team.
The winning car has a long history: Richmond started building it in 1994 at Elgin High School. He began working on the car with Niles West Auto Club students in 1999. Club members started racing the car in 2008, when it was finally finished. The Niles West team qualified for the Indianapolis division finals once before, in 2010.
When they qualified again this year, Richmond said, “I figured if they won one round, that would be amazing.” Instead, the team won all five rounds, beating the 31 other teams in the competition.
The high school teams compete by bracket racing, a form of drag racing that allows for a handicap between predicted elapsed time of two cars over a quarter-mile. Rather than competing based on sheer speed, this format awards a driver’s consistency of performance, relying on skills such as reaction time at the start of the race and ability to handle the car at a consistent pace.
“This win is all the more impressive since our team members make all the decisions,” Richmond said.
They study and take into account such variables as track conditions and outdoor temperature before deciding on the ideal tire pressure, launch RPM speed and other factors.
The club took home the prestigious “Wally” trophy, which is named in honor of the late NHRA founder Wally Parks. The bronze trophy “is the ultimate quest for every drag racer,” according to the NHRA website.
Club members were formally recognized at the Sept. 24 District 219 Board of Education meeting.
Driver Wheeler told Board members: "After more than 14 years of hard work and dedication by students, your Niles West Auto Club was fortunate enough to be able to race a machine built by the students, for the students. This is what separates Niles West from most of the other competing racers. While some teens strap into their mom's minivan to race, there are some that harness into professionally built race cars to compete. A lot of the time, these are the people that are winning, but not this year. For the first time in history a stick-shift car has claimed the championship -- a car built by students."
Other members of the team are: Ben Swanson (Vice President), Ninos Youssef (Treasurer), Tiffany Steffen (Secretary), Conrad Celinski, Alejandro Chavez, Alejandro Coronel, Chris Feldman, David Lotsoff, Farzad Mobli, Cristian Ortiz, Edi Qendro and Arron Snowsky.
The club’s racing is made possible by sponsors including: Lee Auto Parts in Skokie, Flatout Gaskets, Sko-Die, Inc. of Morton Grove, Strange Engineering, Pete’s Porting Service, Westech Automotive and the U.S. Army.