With the economy still facing challenging times, one sector that continues to show signs of increased productivity is automotive maintenance and technology. And, as vehicles of today continue to increase in complexity with advanced technologies, auto technicians must be well-educated and highly-skilled to meet these increasing advancements in the auto industry.

Enthusiastically waiting in the wings to meet that increased demand head-on are the nation's future young automobile technicians, who will showcase their acumen and talent at the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills National Finals in Dearborn, Mich., June 13-15. A timed, head-to-head skills showdown, the competition gives top automotive students from all 50 states the opportunity to demonstrate their automotive knowledge and problem-solving capabilities by resolving "real world" repair challenges.

The 61st annual competition features top high school automotive technology students from across the country with each state represented by a team of two students and their high school instructor. Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills enables many of its participants to embark on promising careers in the automotive repair industry with a record-high $11.5 million in scholarships offered this year and promising employment opportunities following completion of their education or technical training.

In addition to the scholarships, in July the winning students will job shadow the Roush Fenway Racing No. 16 Con-way Freight team leading up to and during the Kroger 200, benefiting Riley Hospital for Children NASCAR race at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis. Students also will have the opportunity to interact at-track with one of racing's most successful and recognized crew chiefs, Larry McReynolds, who is serving as the national spokesperson for the Ford/AAA Auto Skills program this year.

Beyond the prizes and scholarships, this "best of the best" competition represents the final face-off and will bring together the best 100 automotive technology students in the country that have spent countless hours of class time and extra preparation in pursuit of the national championship. Narrowed down from the 10,500 students that started the competition back in March, the national finalists represent a variety of backgrounds and have taken several different paths in pursuit of their dreams. Some of the personal storylines include:

  • Beating the odds: Daniel Sarzynski overcame brain cancer at the age of 7, and now the 17-year old Baltimore resident has come full circle fresh off winning the Maryland state championship with teammate Ernest Kuehne, 17, representing Eastern Technical High School.
  • Home state karma: The host state of Michigan has not claimed the national champion in 40 years, and veteran instructor Tim Timoszyk will be making his fifth National Finals appearance. State champions Ryan Hastings and Andrew Michaluk hope to lean on recent success – Hastings' brother, Zachary, finished second in 2007 – and a home-field advantage (the duo represents Saline High School, a suburb of Ann Arbor) – to tip the scales in their favor.
  • High(est) honors, madam: Sydne Mikesell, 17, had tough shoes to fill in her family following in the footsteps of brother, Taylor, who advanced to the 2009 National Finals. Very much the automotive neophyte when she first entered the program, Mikesell quickly fell in love with working on cars and turned that passion and energy into registering the nation's top score en route to capturing the Idaho state crown alongside teammate Edwardo Luna, 17, representing Blackfoot High School in Idaho Falls.
  • Paying it forward: Instructor Josh Arl takes his role to heart, not only for the hands-on knowledge he has passed on to his students, but also the life lessons learned. Nearly a decade earlier, Arl captured the state title (2001), while dealing with plenty of adversity along the way, including becoming a father at the end of his junior year of high school. But, with the state title in his pocket, it helped open some doors, eventually owning and selling his own business. With his wife expecting their latest child close to the Nationals, Brian Moore, a substitute instructor, will step in and lead Missouri state champions Troy Chastain and Michael Stake, both 19, representing Lebanon Technology & Career Center.
  • Proven track record: Veteran instructor Merle Saunders has enjoyed a long history of success at the state and national level during three decades of guiding his students. In 23 trips to the National Finals, Saunders' teams have captured four National Championships (1992, 1997, 1998 and 2005) while finishing as the runner-up three other times. This year's duo is Steven Tolman and Nathan Maupin of Vale (Ore.) High School. The 19-year olds will look to utilize their instructor's experience and confidence, along with their knowledge, to perform their best.
  • Ford meets military: Kelsey Barnes, 19, had zero automotive experience before she started in the program two years ago, but it didn't stop her from quickly achieving much success culminating with an Alabama state crown with teammate Todd Hood. She will utilize her scholarship to continue her automotive education in-state at Lawson Community College with career aspirations of working for Ford Motor Company. Hood's career path – the U.S. Army – was temporarily delayed when his recruiter found out that the 18-year old's reporting date to Ft. Benning, Ga., coincided with the National Finals. It was then moved to August to allow Hood to vie for the national title before joining the Army. The team represents Haleyville Center of Technology outside of Birmingham.

This year marks the 26th year that AAA has been involved with the competition, serving as a co-sponsor since 1984, while Ford Motor Company celebrates its 16th year. Nearly 10,500 high school juniors and seniors competed in this year's competition. Following an online exam, the highest-scorers advanced to their states' hands-on competition, with the top teams from each state advancing to the National Finals.

At the National Finals, teams representing each state will have their automotive knowledge tested with a 100-question written exam followed by a hands-on competition on the front lawn of Ford World Headquarters. The scores from both will be combined to crown the 2010 national champion.