LAS VEGAS — Veteran auto technician Bill James' jittery finger doing a computer scroll cost him a shot at winning a national automotive troubleshooting contest here.

The errant-digit goof occurred as James used one of a modern auto technician's most important tools — a laptop computer containing diagnostic and service manual information. He scrolled down a line-by-line choice of instructions for fixing a malfunctioning remote-control start device.

But he was feeling the pressure of the competition. “My finger was shaking and I went too far down without realizing it,” he says. He mis-clicked. “I thought it was at the one I wanted, but it wasn't.”

So the repair instructions he printed out were inapplicable, although he didn't realize it until too late at ACDelco's 2006 Technician of the Millennium IV, in which eight auto technicians from the U.S. and Canada competed.

“Pushing the button at the wrong place like that put me down the wrong path and cost me 30 minutes (of a 2-hour judged event),” says James, a 31-year technician from Tulsa, OK. He ended up finishing third. “It just wasn't my day.”

It was Scot Manna's day. He placed first, winning $41,500 in prizes, including a $30,000 voucher for a GM vehicle.

The eight finalists' troubleshooting challenge was to fix Chevrolet Impalas, each rigged with five identical problems. It wasn't the typical day in a service bay.

Like James, Manna felt stressed competing against fellow finalists as well as the clock while about 500 spectators (among the 6,000 attendees of ACDelco annual national convention) watched from bleachers at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

“Once I got going, it wasn't too bad,” says Manna, a 27-year technician from Des Plaines, IL,

Reflecting on his techfest win, Manna says: “I had a thought process of what I wanted to do and stuck to it.” And that was? “Not to take shortcuts.”

Second-place finisher Eric Armstrong of Kennewick, WA, says he kept cool by praying before the event and reminding himself during it “that the only person I was competing against was myself.”

Besides the problem with the remote start, the other mock repair-order items facing the competing technicians were:

  • The engine not starting.
  • The engine light flashing on before the engine stopped working.
  • The power windows not working.
  • The instrument panel's battery icon light going on and off.

AC/Delco trainer and district manager Bob Gutowski notes it is an atypical repair order. It would be rare for a modern vehicle to arrive at a service department with so many simultaneous malfunctions. Vehicles of today are too advanced for that, he says.

Contestants are judged on speed and accuracy of repairs. They also are judged on the post-operative appearance of the car. They're marked down for grime, smudges or fingerprints left after repairs.

Gutowski created the contest to promote industry professionalism and to recognize auto technicians, who often get little recognition, says Jeff Quigley, an ACDelco business director.

“I remember wondering before our first event in 1999 if people would see this as a spectator sport,” says Quigley. “They do, it turns out.”

The eight finalists were among thousands of hopefuls who first took a written test. Eighty top scorers then competed in eight regional contests. Those winners made it to the main event here.

Gutowski sends mixed messages when briefing the finalists beforehand.

He tells them the purpose is “to have fun.” Then he tells them where the restrooms are in case they become physically ill from the stress.

He fervently believes auto technicians hold a high place in the industry.

“This is a profession,” says Gutowski. “I'm tired of hearing the word ‘mechanic.’ These are technicians. When fuel-cell technology comes around, they probably will be called engineers.”