Ryan Whitecotton's favorite activity at school used to be sleeping. But on a recent chilly Thursday night, hours after he was required to be there, the junior hiked two miles to East Peoria Community High School.

Ryan Whitecotton's favorite activity at school used to be sleeping.

But on a recent chilly Thursday night, hours after he was required to be there, the junior hiked two miles to East Peoria Community High School.

Whitecotton, a 16-year-old junior, is president of the high school's car club. Every Thursday night, members of the car club meet for two hours of hands-on work, grilling and conversation.

"Ryan is kind of the poster child as far as success stories of our club," said Mike Siwinski, who created the club two years ago when he began teaching automotive classes at the high school. "He had pink hair and he slept 24/7. In our class, he had his head down to sleep. One day, Ryan woke up and became a stud in this (automotive) class. He decided this was what he wanted to do.

"He's been a leader from the first day we started this car club. The boys elected him president."

Socializing and career skills

Siwinski said the club was formed as a way to give students extra options.

Some high school students don't enjoy traditional academic subjects but thrive in shop classes and have a future working with cars. Others will enjoy a lifetime hobby working on cars. Or, for some, the club is just something different to try.

"Some of them just come for the social aspect," Siwinski said. "They eat brats and burgers and B.S. And that's fine. They're not on the streets getting in trouble. They're here."

Said Whitecotton: "Most of the kids come in here because it gives them something to do on a Thursday night, not sitting at home. A lot of the kids come because their friend said it was cool. They enjoy it, too, and that keeps them coming back."

The club's approximately 30 members are required to maintain a C-plus average or better, attend at least 80 percent of the Thursday meetings and remain in good disciplinary standing with the dean's office.

Otherwise, the club strives to be informal.

"We have a little more freedom as far as what we want to work on," Whitecotton said. "When we're in the class, he gives us our assignments, and we do what we have to do. When we come here to the club, we can jump on whatever project we feel like doing."

Learning from experts

Siwinski and wood shop teacher Jim Hagedorn supervise. Parents also are welcome, and a few street-rod mechanics drop in to offer advice. Siwinski's son Bubba, a 15-year-old student at Midland High School who has spent most of his life working on cars, offers his know-how when needed and is the group's vice president.

The club has no budget, other than some money raised during a yearly car show held in October in the school's parking lot. This year's show attracted about 70 show cars.

'Building a fire'

Mel Naramore met club members at the show.

"I went to their car show last year, and we kind of hit it off right off the bat," Naramore said. "They liked my stuff. If you like my stuff, you're my friend and I'll talk to you."

Naramore and Tom Edwards, friends who enjoy working on cars, are among the adults who attend meetings to share their decades of experience.

"You've heard the term 'car crazy'?" Edwards said. "That's us. These kids have a spark. We're trying to help them build a fire."

Edwards and Naramore hope car skills learned in the high school's garage can help those in need of a career direction.

"A few of them, if it wasn't for these cars, they probably wouldn't be in school," Naramore said. "Myself, I never graduated. There was nothing of interest for me but staying up late and drinking with the older guys.

"I'm giving back something I never got when I was a kid. We've all been where these guys are. If there's anything I can do to change their direction or help them, I will. Some of this could turn into jobs."

With little money, the club finds owners willing to send their cars in for work. The Siwinskis, who regularly work on cars at their Varna farm, are among those who donate raw cars and parts.

The Siwinskis and Hagedorn also bring in late-model cars they race at Peoria Speedway and at other area tracks. Some students serve on their pit crews in the summer.

A scan of the high school's garage shows vehicles in various colors and states of repair: a 1963 Studebaker Avanti, a '65 Ford Mustang, a '54 Ford Crestline truck and a '55 Ford F-100 truck.

The Siwinskis take cars home for painting, and interior work is contracted out. Beyond that, the club performs the wide range of repairs. Instructors review the students' work and fix any mistakes.

"The kids here get hands-on experience with stuff you can't learn in a regular classroom," said Bubba Siwinski, who plans to pursue a career working with cars. "You do pretty much everything: welding, cutting patches, Bondo work, taking motors apart and putting them together, grinding and sanding."

Freshman James Warren, 15, comes from a longtime street-rod family. But even after extensive time in area garages, Warren enjoys working alongside fellow high school students.

"My favorite thing here is helping with the Avanti," Warren said. "I've been helping with the engine and the alternator. It's a rare car, and I just like the car.

"I like that we can come over here after school and just have some fun, working on cars. Everyone here, that's what we like doing."

Ryan Ori can be reached at (309) 686-3264 or rori@pjstar.com.