“The only bad thing about this profession is that on rainy days you get a little wet,” Steven Seelman said as he and I walked beneath my car which was up on a lift in his shop, Whitestown Automotive, which is in Westmoreland
My car looked different than I expected from that vantage point. They’re solid looking. But when it’s raining, they do drip.
“How did you get into this business?” I asked.
“When I grew up in the 70s you wanted to have a go-cart or a snowmobile you had to learn how to fix it,” he recalled. “And back then they broke down a lot!”
Seelman came from a farming background. Everyone in his family, going back generations, learned how to keep tractors running even if that meant repairing them out in a field.
“Same thing in high school, if you wanted a car you had to keep it running,” he said.
After serving in the Army, he drove a cement truck for a while then drove larger trucks. Soon after he took his passion for “old-school muscle cars” and race cars and “jumped around local garages that needed help.”
Things were much different when he began in the profession. People had to go to auto parts stores to research the unique specifics of different makes and models. They had rooms that served as reference libraries with tables and chairs where mechanics could sit while they read and take notes. Now he “jumps on the computer” several times throughout the day, and it “changes every day.”
“Nothing’s ever simple,” Kevin Wuest, the owner of the garage, said from across the shop. “You have to be a detective. When engine lights first came out people were like ‘Holy …!’ Now we do a full scan on a vehicle in 15 minutes.”
I laughed and asked his why he has a snowmobile in the garage. It turns out that Wuest is very successful at drag racing snowmobiles on blacktop.
“Doesn’t it wear out the belt?” I asked.
Wuest showed me where the skis had customized wheels especially for blacktop. His snowmobile goes up to 155 mph.
Seelman and his son are also both successful drag racers, they race cars. The office of the shop is lined with trophies.
Although they race different types of vehicles, they both follow rules of a sport (drag racing) that is much more complicated than I imagined, involving racers who must predict how much time it will take them to reach the finish line before they even hit the gas.
“My corvette should be let’s say a 13.2 second quarter mile,” Seelman explained. “If I got out there and the air is less humid and it’s better for horsepower. If all of a sudden halfway through the day the rain is coming, and the humidity drops-and we have all the equipment to determine barometric pressure-then we’re going to slow down. We’re going to slow it down to a 13.1 instead of giving ourselves that extra tenth and playing a ‘braking game’ at the finish line.”
“You run the risk of ‘busting out’,” Wuest said.
“You can’t give yourself that extra time.” Seelman said.
“Sometimes you have time trials on Thursday and Fridays,” Wuest said. “But you don’t race until Saturday.”
While I was trying to wrap my head around how hard it must be to have that level of expertise. A phone call came through. I listened to Seelman patiently explain to a customer the service her car was going to need based on his inspection.
“What’s the hardest part of this business?” I asked.
Wuest recalled a partner who hated having to “lift the phone off the hinge and tell someone their bill was going to be seven or eight hundred dollars.”
Before I started the interview, I listened to Seelman break the bad news to a customer that their transmission was shot. I remarked about how deftly he had broken the bad news.
“You have to keep your feelings in check,” he explained to me. “But you have to understand what they might be feeling too. You have to have that ability to help people understand what they need to do make the right decision.”
“That can’t be easy,” I said.
“We treat everyone like family or a friend,” Seelman said.
I asked him if that was rare nowadays.
“I’m one of the last guys who rebuilds transmissions, I’m one of the last guys who rebuilds engines,” Steven Seelman says surveying the shop with the cars on the lift and the trophies lining the wall. “Any garage I’ve ever worked at I’ve been able to handle anything. I’m one of the last guys who actually fixes things.”
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo.