Knute Weber; Reinhold, PA: I am trying to become a performance mechanic/tuner and I was wondering if you could help me. What you would recommend as a school for tuner/performance mechanics? What are good skills to have? Being 16, I am still in school but need to plan. I am considering going to Hennessey's Tuner school, but I was wondering if you would recommend something different? I would like to know all the information possible about becoming a tuner/high performance mechanic, but so far I cannot find the information anywhere! I am not like most other kids who like cars. I have a passion for cars and I have had this passion since I was just 1 year old (there is video of me in my dad's '70 Stage 1 Buick trying to drive and shift his car). Almost everyone in my family owned muscle cars at one point and I am a huge muscle car fan! I have read Car Craft ever since I could read, and I continue to read every issue. I love to expand my knowledge about cars and have learned a lot, but I still need to learn more!
Jeff Smith: You are definitely headed in the right direction, Knute. While experience is one of the best teachers, combine that with a solid technical background and it will not be long before you will be teaching other guys the nuances of tuning. The best recommendation would be to consider expanding your knowledge base beyond just tuning. A solid background in general automotive mechanical knowledge can be extremely useful when diagnosing problems. I did a quick Internet search within Pennsylvania and came up with three schools: Automotive Training Center in Exton, Lincoln Tech in Philadelphia, and Pennco Tech in Bristol. It's also possible that your state may offer junior college vocational/technical schools with an automotive technology focus. While repairing stock vehicles may not be nearly as romantic as tuning a 2,000hp drag car, you really won't be very good at tuning without a solid mechanical knowledge base.
Another approach you may not have considered is aiming higher. Several well-versed tuners I know have a mechanical engineering background that gives them a decided technical advantage. If the math doesn't intimidate you, you might want to give thought to working toward a mechanical engineering degree. I spoke with Mark McPhail, a former GM engineer, and he made a good point that powertrain engineering is in such a state of flux right now that concentrating on tuning might limit you in the future. While internal combustion engines will be around for at least the next 30 years or more, we're already seeing the next big push from the OEs with emphasis on direct injection as opposed to just multipoint fuel injection. The basics of combustion will not change, but it's clear that the way fuel is introduced into the engine is likely to continue to evolve. As an example of how this affects tuning, we hear that direct-injected engines demand a completely different thought process as to how air is inducted into the cylinder, which means tuning might take on a completely different path. Another interesting aspect in regard to future vehicles is the concept of control processing with computers, which will only continue to grow. So a well-versed knowledge of computer processing and writing code and software control will certainly put you near the head of the class of future tuners.
Another related area of expertise is power sources. Fuel seems to be an area that will become increasingly important, and beyond gasoline, there appears to be potential in alternative fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), methanol, ethanol (like E85), and possibly other gaseous fuels. Obviously, there are a ton of opportunities worth investigating before you make any decisions. As an enticement for attending a four-year school in mechanical engineering, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has created a competition for engineering students called the Formula SAE, where students build an open-wheel race car.
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