Sunday spotlight: Mechanic’s lifelong passion is to work on vehicles

Todd Heiberger checks the computer codes on a Dodge truck he was working on earlier this month. Heiberger, who has worked at The Auto Angel on Cerrillos Road for the past 13 years, was named a Master Automobile Technician of the Year in December 2015 by Technet and the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. He is one of only three dozen auto technicians honored with a national award. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

Mechanic Todd Heiberger can lose himself fixing up his ‘66 Pontiac GTO the way a Buddhist monk finds peace in meditation.

Sometimes it drives his wife, Tanya, crazy. “She’ll come out to the garage and say, ‘You’ve been out here four hours. What are you doing?’ ” Heiberger said with a laugh.

Fixing up cars is his profession and his hobby.

He started working on vehicles before he could drive. Now, more than two decades into his vocation, he’s one of three dozen auto technicians honored with a national award recognizing their skills.

Heiberger, shop foreman at The Auto Angel on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe, was named a Master Automobile Technician of the Year for 2015 by the company Technet and the nonprofit National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. He earned the award for making top scores among 300,000 professionals on automotive service certification tests.

“Todd is one of the outstanding ASE-certified professionals recognized annually by different segments of the automotive service and repair industry,” Timothy Zilke, president and CEO of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, said in a statement.

Thirty-six companies sponsored individual technician recognition awards in auto, truck, collision and parts categories. They ranked technicians based on the institute’s test scores, on-the-job evaluations, community service and other factors when selecting their honorees.

A Chicago native, Heiberger moved to Red River with his parents when he was 5. A few years later, the family moved to Santa Fe.

Heiberger had a reputation early on for taking things apart and putting them back together. Usually things worked after he rebuilt them, but his mother made sure none of her kitchen appliances was within easy reach.

“My dad used to call me the ‘wrecker’ when I was a kid,” Heiberger said. “Whenever I saw a screw, I wanted to take it out and see what was behind it. I thought every kid used to take apart their toys.”

His dad tinkered with cars and did some of his own repairs. “I was the kid who started handing him wrenches,” Heiberger said.

He got his first set of tools when he was 15. “It’s been snowballing from there. Tools are the addiction of a mechanic.”

A 1991 graduate of Santa Fe High School, Heiberger took auto mechanics in the vocational technical program from Skip Saurman. “He was a really good teacher,” Heiberger said.

Heiberger was among the students Saurman took to the annual Plymouth AAA Auto Skills state and national contests for high school students. Ford Motor Co. joined with AAA two decades ago to host the competitions and offer scholarships to promising mechanics. But the two companies announced a few months ago that 2015 was the final year of the decadesold competition.

Heiberger said the loss of the competition was unfortunate because it was a place where young automotive technicians could test their skills.

Vocational technical programs are important to keep at high schools, he said. “Not everybody wants to be a computer geek or a CEO. There are a lot of people who want to learn trades. If you go to a job, and they ask you what kind of experience you have … well, you don’t unless you’ve learned it from your family or in school.”

Heiberger and other mechanics take a few classes each year to keep up with changes in the automotive industry. “Now you can have 20 computers on a car,” Heiberger said. “They all have to talk to each other.”

Heiberger prefers the “good new days” to the old ones. “I can diagnose more problems with cars now from the driver’s seat,” he said. “It used to be 90 percent of diagnosis was under the hood. Now it’s watching the scan tools. Most of the time, they can tell you which mechanical functions are going bad.

“I like getting my hands dirty,” he added, “but I prefer diagnosing from the driver’s seat now because it involves less injury and less sweat.”

Car engines are built to last longer now, too. “Old cars like my GTO were dead and done when they had 60,000 miles. Now cars are going 200,000 miles easy,” Heiberger said. “Cars are lasting exponentially longer than anything we used to make.”

He said, “It’s just amazing to me sometimes that you can take a 5,000-pound computer with tires and a gas-powered engine and sling it down a highway at 80 miles per hour for 200,000 miles and just about have no problems.”

One of the hardest parts of diagnosing a vehicle is getting it to repeat a problem experienced by the owner. “We can spend two to three hours pulling it apart, driving it, trying to figure out something that happens only intermittently. Even the scanner may not show a problem,” Heiberger said. “Like a doctor, we rule certain things out and narrow down to what is happening.”

He said the Internet is now his most important tool. If there’s a problem with a vehicle that he can’t figure out, he can get on a couple of different chat room sites frequented by mechanics and ask if they’ve dealt with it. “Mechanics around the world let you know if they’ve seen a similar problem on that type of vehicle and how they fixed it,” he said. “We’ve fixed several cars just by that.”

Heiberger said he takes five to six classes a year to learn about the latest electronics, programming and mechanical changes coming down the pipe for modern vehicles.

What does he see in the future for vehicles? “I’m still waiting for a flying car. They promised it back in the 1950s.”

He would love to see solar power incorporated into electric cars, extending their driving range to a distance limited only by battery storage and the sun shining.

With all the vehicle choices out there now, Heiberger still leans to the powerful muscle car.

“I would love a new Dodge Charger Hellcat,” he said. “I can’t afford that, but 707 HP at the push of a button is just awesome to me.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

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