When stock car racer Glen Werdon hits the Saugus Speedway next spring, he'll be relying on an unlikely pit crew--six of his high school auto shop students.
He could hardly exclude them from the action, since they're the mechanics who transformed his old Chevelle into a blue and orange demon that will circle the .33-mile oval track in 19 seconds.
Werdon, 47, who has a doctorate in industrial psychology, which he applies toward worker--and student--motivation, has taught auto shop at University High School in West Los Angeles for only a year and a half. But he has raced stock cars professionally for 30 years, and last year, struggling to keep his students' interest and teach them something valuable, he decided to bring his other vocation to the classroom.
"The students just weren't getting it," he said. "They needed something to center on."
Werdon traded another car for the 1971 Chevelle, which he had seen racing in the hobby stock division at Saugus. He wanted to upgrade it to street stock, a division that allows extensive modifications but permits only 2-barrel carburetors.
His students went to work stripping it of excess weight, removing door panels, springs on the trunk and other unnecessary parts. When they were finished, the car was 500 pounds lighter, weighing 3,050, just 50 pounds above the minimum allowable weight.
The students replaced drum brakes with disc brakes, standard tires with treadless tires, the gas tank with a fuel cell, the 5-quart oil pan with an 8-quart oil pan, and the bucket seat with a racing seat. They put in a 350-cubic-inch V-8 engine, mounted new gauges on the dashboard, installed a fire extinguishing system, rebuilt the rear end and replaced dented fenders.
They sanded, primed and painted the car in the school's colors. Art students are going to paint an Indian warrior on the hood in honor of the Uni High Warriors, Werdon said, and "University High" will be printed inside the hood.
"It's a real learning experience," said Edwin Murillo, a senior. "I can't wait to see it race. I really feel like a part of the car."
"I think my mother would rather I get my nails done than be underneath a car," said senior Stefanie Lewin, the only girl among the car's chief mechanics. "I get dirty but it all washes off. I can't wait to be in the pit."
Lewin, who was replacing the left rear brake, said the students' responsibility for Werdon's safety was nothing to be taken lightly.
"What we do affects his life, because he's the one driving it," she said. "Because if we put on a tire wrong and he blows it out, it's our fault."
"If we didn't have the teacher we have, this whole program wouldn't have come through," said Kamran Nazarian, a senior. "None of this would have been possible without Dr. Werdon."
Werdon prefers to shine the spotlight on his apprentice mechanics. "The students are the stars of this class," he said.
Werdon has had to pay for all parts and materials himself, spending about $6,000 so far. He estimated that the car still needs $3,000 worth of work, and he is seeking a corporate sponsor to help with expenses.
But he's already looking beyond the completion of this car. Next year he wants to break in a new crop of student mechanics on a 1989 Camaro--and race it in the sportsman division.