ST. PETERSBURG — If Alex Schreppel gets his wish, he’ll be a race car driver, or at least working on the high-speed vehicles he dreams about in his classes at the Pinellas Technical Education Centers.
It’s a dream that’s not too far-fetched, 17-year-old Schreppel learned during a trip Thursday to the pits of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, even for a boy who never went to high school. In February, Schreppel will have a degree from the tech school, and from there his life is an open road, he said.
“I never saw myself making it all the way through college, and there was nothing that really interested me enough to even get me to go to high school,” said Schreppel, a Fort Lauderdale resident. “What I did know was that ever since I was 9 or 10 years old I’ve loved really fast cars, and when I realized I could really make something of myself doing what I love, it pushed me into pTEC. It’s amazing how my life has changed in just a year.”
Schreppel and about 25 other automotive technology students and instructors from the school’s St. Petersburg and Clearwater campuses made the rounds at the 1.8-mile high-speed motor-racing circuit that has taken over downtown St. Petersburg for the race this weekend. The trip was sponsored by the Pinellas Education Foundation and TechStart Tampa Bay, a philanthropic group started by the Tampa Bay Technology Forum.
As glossy black, white and red cars filtered onto high-tech inspection pads for mandatory checks before race day, students snapped pictures and wandered around to talk with race team members and to see ways their degrees can be applied in the career field.
The biggest surprise was how much technology is integrated into the advanced cars, Schreppel said. Sensors record data about a vehicle’s every detail, from how a driver handles turns in laps to tire pressure and temperature.
Drivers wear accelerometers in their headphones that measure the impact of G-forces and, when necessary, head trauma suffered in a crash, IndyCar mechanical engineer Brett Barnhart said.
“The race cars change every year, especially as we come up with new technologies that make them safer and record new data, and it definitely keeps us on our toes,” Barnhart said. “That’s why we’re always looking for young blood that’s being taught the latest technologies; they’re the ones getting the jobs.”
Even if the students don’t end up on the pit crew of champion drivers, the trip is an example of how a solid STEM education can lead to careers. In 2012, a Tampa Bay Technology Forum study found 4,000 tech-related jobs in the Tampa Bay area that couldn’t be filled because the workforce lacked proper training, said Melodie Hillier, event and program manager for TechStart.