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Warrior Project's Push for Women in the Industry

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Gathered around a stripped down 1969 AMC AMX, each woman stood up, one by one, and told a similar story.

“They said, ‘When I was growing up, I wanted to work on cars and everybody thought it was weird and I was discouraged,’” Karen Salvaggio recalls. “I heard firsthand about the barriers of why there's not more women technicians.”

In steps the Warrior Project—a mother entity that hosts vehicle rebuilds to raise awareness about the lack of women in technical and leadership positions in the auto repair industry. These particular women were participants in the Warrior Project’s first undertaking, the Valkyrie Project. The group rebuilt the battered sports car in 11 weeks in preparation for a national charity tour, a series of races, and a spot at the 2015 SEMA Show in November.

Salvaggio, a veteran driver with 150 victories under Thunder Valley Racing, decided her broken-down AMX could serve as the first Warrior Project rebuild to show those “outsiders” they are welcome in auto repair.

“It helps us understand what we can do to break down those barriers—to stop building roadblocks, and instead build bridges for women to get into the industry,” she says.

The Project

As president of JR Products, a company that manufactures parts and accessories for the aftermarket, Susan Carpenter has seen her share of car builds—and she’s noticed a “lack of female wrenchheads.”

One of those builds was a Mustang displayed at the 2013 SEMA Show. Serving as the coordinator for that project two years ago, Carpenter was inspired to put together another build for the show. While at the 2014 SEMA Show, she brainstormed with several women to create what turned out to be the Warrior Project.

“It wasn’t about saying, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’” she says. “It was about getting the message out there: Yes, we’re women, but look what we can do, and you can do it too. It’s to inspire other women out there to try it, and if they have tried it and feel like outsiders, they’re not alone.”

The Valkyrie Project consisted of four stages:

The Rebuild: Bring female professionals together in one shop and work in a collaborative environment.

Philanthropy: Take the restored AMX on the road and raise money for the Austin Hatcher Foundation.

Competition: Compete in races across the country to showcase the women technicians’ talents, showing—instead of telling—the world why more women should be recruited in auto repair.

2015 SEMA Show: Showcase the car on one of the automotive industry’s biggest stages. Several members of the build were on hand in November to answer questions about the project, raise awareness about the lack of women in the industry and recruit female professionals for future Warrior Project builds.

Nan Gelhard, product procurement lead on Valkyrie and advertising manager for Summit Racing, was deeply inspired to carry out one of the Warrior Project’s mantras: Actions speak louder than words.

ALL IN: More than 20 female technicians and shop operators—from both the collision and mechanical segments of the industry—banded together to complete the 11-week restoration.

“I’m often one or two women working the room,” she says. “It’s not that we don’t like cars. It’s that we’re not addressed directly. The industry is missing a growth opportunity, and we want to fix that.”

Working with Salvaggio and Amy Fitzgerald, build liaison for the project and owner of Cool Hand Customs in Middleton, Wis., Gelhard connected with 27 companies that sponsored the project and donated parts.

Christina Kwan of Kwan International Marketing & Media took charge of spreading the word to the media and crafting a website, and Julia Johnson, an automotive technology instructor at Skyline College in San Bruno, Calif., sent out a newsletter through the North American Council of Automotive Teachers to recruit female tech students throughout the country.

“Women are not going to go where they’re not wanted,” Johnson says. “Because this was an all-woman build, the students saw it as a good career opportunity.”

After securing a dedicated bay for the rebuild in Roberts Collision Center in Clearwater, Fla., owned by Doug Evans, a crew of student technicians and ASE-certified professionals settled in for the 11-week rebuild.

The Build

As far back as she can remember, JoAnn Bortles has “always been a gearhead.” And she’s always noticed a glaring problem in auto repair:

“When I started in this business in 1979, I did not know of any other women that did paint and body, or even turned wrenches on cars,” she says. “And not a whole lot has changed these days.”

After two weeks of setting up the shop and tearing down the vehicle in April, Bortles, owner of Crazy Horse Painting in Waxhaw, N.C., and a team of over 20 female technicians and painters recruited from all over the country lent their collective expertise to the nine-week AMX rebuild.

“It was amazing to be in the center of that, meeting these people who came in on their own dime,” Salvaggio says. “There was synergy and a sense of camaraderie that you had to be there to feel.”

Working with Amy Bogner, a certified painter for PPG (official paint sponsor for the project), Bortles recalls the hectic three weeks of body and paint work as a race against time to keep up with the Valkyrie schedule.

“[Bogner] would be on one side spraying primer, and I’d be on the other,” Bortles says. “Time was a factor. Next thing you know you’re a day behind, and you’re working through hour 17 of an 18-hour day.”

One of the key body technicians on the build came from the collision side: Jess Anderson, a tech at Ellis and Salazar in Austin, Texas, saw a Facebook post about the project. A few days later, with her toolbox packed in the bed of her truck, Anderson was pulling an all-nighter on the road to Florida with her co-worker, paint prepper Jessica Gomez, for a week of body work on the AMX—all on her company’s dime to boot.

“Each of the leads on the project said they were told by at least one man that not only could this build not be done in 11 weeks, but it couldn’t be done by women,” she says. “So we were on an obnoxious mission to prove we could put a legitimate race car on the track.”

Once the crew had wrapped up the body work, Bortles stepped in for the paint job. Keeping with Salvaggio’s request to give the vehicle a classic Wimbledon white coat, Bortles added two custom-mixed metallic pearl blue stripes onto the hood.

After an additional four weeks of rebuilding the engine, replacing the transmission and upgrading the suspension at Fitzgerald’s shop, the 1969 AMC AMX was ready to showcase the women’s talents to the public—the most important step in promoting the recruitment of women into auto repair.

The Recruitment

When Bogi Lateiner found out about the Valkyrie Project, she knew she had to get involved.

And while the ASE-certified technician did perform some disassembly work on AMX, she knew she could use her industry prominence to get the word out to industry leaders and female techs everywhere. After all, she is one of the hosts of “All Girls Garage,” a television show featuring a female-dominated shop, and the AMX’s appearance on national television put the project’s mission statement in the national spotlight.

“Women make up less than 2 percent of the industry. So when you have an opportunity to meet other women in the industry and meet people doing the same thing you’re doing, it’s really validating, it’s really empowering,” she says. “It’s just a lot of fun to get a group of women together and show the world that we’re out there, we’re all very different, and that what ties us together is our passion for the industry.”

In addition to the national television promotion was the Hot Rod Power Tour. Traveling 11,500 miles from Madison, Wis., to Baton Rouge, La. Carpenter, Johnson and other Valkyrie Project members made stops at children’s hospitals in three different states with the completed AMX. The team drove for the Austin Hatcher Foundation, raising money for each mile driven.

In October, Salvaggio took the AMX out to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, Calif., to compete in road races, and plans to take the vehicle to several races next year, including the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

“The reach we get at those events will be invaluable,” Salvaggio says. “Getting the car in front of people and telling our story is much more effective than any statistic.”

At the end of the long road was the 2015 SEMA Show, where the 1969 AMC AMX made its showroom debut, propped up in the Spanesi booth, where show attendees stopped all week to ask about the rebuild and learn about the Warrior Project’s ambitions.

In fact, they were able to start recruiting for the Warrior Project’s next venture: Torque and Recoil.

“Now that we’re looking into our second project, these women are saying, ‘Just let me know when and where and I’ll be there,’” Carpenter said at SEMA. “Before we had to go seek them—now, we’ve got women coming to us.” 

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