Niles West race team shifts history with victory
The Niles West Auto Club Racing Team stands with its championship-winning 1978 red Dodge Aspen. Back row: Ninos Youssef, Chris Feldman, Cristian Ortiz, Nick Isho, Alejandro Arellano Chavez, Conrad Celinski, Alejandro Coronel, Edi Qendro, Farzad Mobli. Other row: John Wheeler, Tim Richmond (teacher). Not pictured: Aaron Snowsky | Contributed photo
Updated: November 5, 2012 6:20AM
SKOKIE — Driving a vintage 1978 red Dodge Aspen with manual transmission, Niles West Auto Club Racing Team president John Wheeler crossed the finish line to make history last month.
At that moment on Sept. 16, Niles West beat 31 high school racing teams to become the champions of the National Hot Rod Association North Central Division Summit Racing Series Finals — a first for both the school and for the contest in that the car was a stick-shift.
Held at the Lucas Oil Raceway Park in Indianapolis, the 15-member Niles West team took first place in the High School Division, making the team national champions in Division 3, which covers five states in the Midwest.
Though Wheeler drove the car that beat out the competing teams in all five rounds, the road to the finish line was a team effort that required a great deal of work on behalf of the students in the club, who spent two days a week for two or three hours after school working on the car.
“The club is very beneficial to students because they learn all the aspects of working together successfully as a team,” team sponsor Tim Richmond said. “Our message is to teach them to keep working toward improvement and to overcome mistakes with persistence.”
The championship car has seen more decades than the students in the club. Richmond started building it with students at Elgin High School in 1994, and brought it with him to Niles West when he transferred to the school in 1999. Niles West Auto Club students started racing it in 2008 after almost a decade of work had been put into it and it was finally in top form.
Before winning the NHRA championship this year, Niles West had some previous success when the team qualified for the Indianapolis division finals in 2010.
The students in the club can proudly display their achievement for the classmates to see with the prestigious “Wally” award, a bronze trophy named in honor of the late NHRA founder, Wally Parks.
Besides bonding over their mutual interests in car racing, the club also provides an outlet for the students to satisfy their hunger for racing cars in a safe, productive environment instead of illegally on the streets, Richmond said.
And despite stereotypes that car racing is a manly sport, there are even a few girls on the team.
“This year we have three girls, but I wish we had more,” Richmond said. “I’m hoping we can get a girl to drive one of these days.”
Still fresh from their big win the auto club students already have their eyes on their next project — sprucing up a 1975 Plymouth Station Wagon Richmond recently received through a charitable donation.
“The Dodge was a stick-shift transmission, so not many kids knew how to drive it,” Richmond said. “Since the Plymouth is automatic, more kids will be able to get behind the wheel.”
Wheeler and Richmond proudly showed off their trophy with the rest of the team at the Niles Township District 219 Board of Education meeting on Sept. 24.
“While some teens strap into their mom’s minivan to race, there are some that harness into professionally built race cars to compete,” Wheeler said at the meeting. “A lot of the time, these are the people that are winning, but not this year because for the first time in history a stick-shift car has claimed the championship — a car built by students.”