SMC hosts 202 for Automotive Day

Published 7:00 pm Monday, October 9, 2023

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DOWAGIAC — Southwestern Michigan College’s Dowagiac campus hosted 202 Michiana high school students Oct. 6 for Automotive Day.

Participants included Dowagiac, Cassopolis, Lakeshore, Niles, Coloma, Covert, Elkhart Area Career Center and A.K. Smith Career Center, Michigan City.

The event aims to show students the latest in auto technology, such as advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) that warn and/or actively take control of vehicles to enhance driver safety and prevent auto accidents.

ADAS has the potential to prevent 40 percent of all vehicle crashes, 37 percent of all injuries and 29 percent of deaths.

David Heacock, Autel ADAS field trainer, has more than 49 years in automotive repair service with ASE Master, L1, L2, L3 and Service Advisor certifications.

“I’ve been teaching this technology worldwide since 2008,” said Heacock, who flew in from Canada. “ADAS, which affects every module on a car, is all I do. In 2023, the U.S. government forced every manufacturer to have forward and rear collision warning. One-hundred percent need calibration. It’s not going away because we need it for autonomous vehicles and is a growing market in auto repair.”

Auto Day also introduces students to professionals who could employ them in the future, such as Nate Zolman and Vice President Tony Milcherska of Zolman’s Best-One Tire and Auto Care, with 12 locations — eight retail.

“We cover from Kalamazoo, over to Benton Harbor, down to South Bend and over to Elkhart,” Milcherska said. “Commercial has grown to 60 percent of our business.”

Founded in 1978 by his father, Zolman toggles between being a blunt boss with advice on navigating the real world of work and a demanding dad of five children ages 18-24 figuring out college and careers in different ways.

One son works for the family business, one entered fire protection. Two daughters attend Indiana University in Bloomington. One wanted to be a dentist, the other a doctor of physical therapy. The youngest is a Ball State University freshman.

Zolman took advantage of the COVID-19 70-percent business downturn to complete his University of Notre Dame master’s degree in business administration (MBA).

Milcherska joined Zolman a decade ago as Mishawaka service manager after 10 ½ years in the Army and a master’s degree in information systems management to go with his bachelor’s degree in business management and associate degree in criminal justice.

Zolman employs 161, opening four more locations in the past 18 months. The dozen locations have 112 mechanical bays, 20 mobile service trucks, $3.2 million in inventory between tires and automotive parts and sold 65,000 tires last year.

The company is divided into two divisions, retail (60 percent automotive repairs and 40 percent tires) and commercial, 24-hour road service and retreading tires at an Indianapolis plant.

“We just opened a new commercial trailer repair in Mishawaka with four drive-in bays and work on semi-trailers and utility trailers. We also do forklift and farm tires,” Milcherska said.

“If you don’t want to be an auto mechanic or a lube tech,” that’s okay,” Zolman said. “The industry still needs you in some capacity — accounting, finance, sales, inventory management, marketing, human resources, insurance benefits or information technology on computers. Yes, we need mechanics, but we also need salespeople and truck drivers.”

“We’re growing,” Zolman said, “because we hire for character.

Life decisions you make outside of work or school impact your future, income and social status positively or negatively. Perfect example, a mechanic making $100,000 is getting divorced, drinks too much to drown his sorrows and decides to drive home instead of being responsible. He crashes, hurts someone, loses his license. We can’t insure him. He’s fired.

“Any adult who observes you, whether it’s your teachers or coaches, knows what you do or don’t do. We’re not judging, we’re assessing you. If people put the same effort into working that they put into getting out of it, they could double their income. We will promote a C talent with an amazing attitude over a master mechanic who’s a negative jerk. We can teach skills. We can’t teach being a kind person or a positive attitude. And don’t play on your phone at work.”

Scott Klepinger’s Modern Muscle Car Factory (MMCF) in Elkhart is an automotive shop specializing in turning classic cars into fuel-injected hot rods, from complete modern engine and transmission swaps to modern suspension and brakes.

Kleplinger displayed his ’86 Camaro, which has reached 173 mph and gets 24 mpg highway.

Students explored the Jan and A.C. Kairis Building auto shop, from the ’69 Roadrunner under construction to the engine simulator, chatting with Professors Kyle Schrock and Jeff Robson.

“We are building the engine and transmission starting probably next week,” said Schrock, who oversees Auto Club.

Students lunched on pizza in Mathews Conference Center East, toured housing and the Student Activity Center, peeking in on men’s basketball practice and the rock-climbing wall.

Students interested in SMC’s automotive program can find more information at and apply for free at