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Sanveer Garcha, left, 18, and Freddy Gutierrez, right, 17, of the Alhambra High School auto shop class, work on an alignment for a Volkswagen Jetta during class in Martinez, Calif., on Friday, May 30, 2014. The two students took first place in the Northern California AAA/Ford Auto Skills Competition finals, and both win a trip to the national contest at the Ford Motor Company headquarters in June in Detroit. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

MARTINEZ -- Sanveer Garcha and Freddy Gutierrez both grew up fixing engines, with Sanveer working on 18-wheelers, and Freddy learning from his uncle about the ins and outs of car repair.

"In my family, I'm the 'go to' guy when it comes to anything auto," Freddy says.

Both of them spend their spare time modifying their cars with "after-market parts," Freddy says, always striving to optimize engine performance.

Today, the longtime friends seem to read each other cues: they recently tinkered with the motor of a Ford Fiesta, painstakingly poring over the model's operating manual, and troubleshooting 10 possible problems in less than 90 minutes time.

They retrieved a racquetball that had been lodged in the air intake, fixed the brakes and accelerator assembly, and located the purposely broken fuse and flawed schematics. And, they diagnosed a faulty reverse light in the last 20 minutes.

Their adroit teamwork paid off.

The seniors at Alhambra High School recently won the state title of the AAA/Ford Auto Skills Competition, and on June 8 head to Ford Motor Company's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., for the national contest.

"I think they anticipate each other's moves," says their instructor Brian Wheeler, crediting their friendship as a key factor for their automotive success.

The stakes on the national playing field are more difficult, with 50 teams tackling myriad malfunctions on a Ford Fusion that is more high tech and intricate than the entry-level Fiesta, and they must score well on a 100-question exam.

"The sky's the limit," says Freddy, who resides in Martinez. "They're going to mess with every system in the car ... It's like solving a puzzle."

To prepare, they are renting a Fusion to familiarize themselves with its components and to confirm consistency between the manual and the layout of the car's engine and electrical system.

"Once you're in the competition, it's just you, your partner and the car," Sanveer, a Pittsburg resident, adds of their requisite ability to concentrate and their matter-of-fact demeanor.

Both also have honed their hands-on acumen from internships, with Freddy working at Walnut Creek Honda, and Sanveer working at Concord BMW.

Under Wheeler's tutelage, Sanveer, 18, and Freddy, 17, have assimilated core subjects, from science and math to writing and reasoning, in to their methodology for diagnosing and fixing their vehicle.

"I try and stick as much car into them as I possibly can," says Wheeler, who ran a collision auto body shop for 30 years before earning his vocational education credential five years ago.

Wheeler, who teaches in the ROP program, under the auspices of the Contra Costa County Office of Education, is one of this year's top four finalists for the county's Teacher of the Year recognition.

His students are required to keep a daily journal, which Wheeler says "drives the learning in deeper," and he cites the corollary between possessing strong written and verbal skills and earning an average of 50 percent more in salary in the auto tech industry.

As a high school student in Ogden, Utah, Wheeler's interest in all things auto was piqued with his father's gift of a 1956 Plymouth Belvedere, which prompted his self-directed research, and a school course load, including physics and math, whereby suddenly "the cars' (mechanics) made a lot of sense."

"It puts meaning in to the rest of their education," Wheeler says of his students' passion for working on cars and making connections with the school's core curriculum.

And, competition, such as the Ford Motors event, inspires his giving a pep talk about the importance of pursuing higher education.

"If you've won this, then your skills and abilities are well above average," he says.

Upon graduation, Sanveer and Freddy both will attend the Universal Technical Institute in Sacramento.

Sanveer has his sights set on becoming a certified master automotive tecnician with his own auto shop, while Freddy aspires to adding a bachelor's degree in biological science to the mix.

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