For 25 years, the UVU Auto Expo has showcased hot cars and the institution’s vocational roots
A UVU Classic
A quarter-century later, the UVU Auto Expo is still revved up and raising money for scholarships
By Jim Rayburn ‘87
The “Thunder Pig” captivated everyone who passed. Gleaming in the late-spring sun, Dustin and Jen Gray’s fire-engine red 1958 Chevy 3100 series step-side pickup sat with hood raised to reveal its detailed and powerful 454 engine, doors open to showcase its meticulous leather interior.
The Grays’ custom classic, which took more than 10 years to restore, was one of nearly 800 vintage autos and hot rods spread across the lawns of Thanksgiving Point this past May at the 25th Utah Valley University Auto Expo & Swap Meet — an exhibit that attracted more than 9,000 spectators to survey the region’s finest in automobile remodeling craftsmanship.
“Everyone is fascinated by cars,” says Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a regular attendee at the annual UVU Auto Expo. “A lot of us grew up in the age when people did a lot of their own work on their own cars and were always tinkering with different ways to fix them up, so we like looking at vintage cars because we feel a little vintage ourselves. It brings back a lot of memories and takes us back in time a little bit. And it’s fun to imagine how we’d fix up a certain car if we had the opportunity or wonder how it would ride.”
Fascination and attention are exactly what UVU hopes the annual Auto Expo brings. Originated in 1983 with a display of about 70 cars, the UVU Auto Expo has grown into one of the more popular street rod and classic car exhibits in Utah. Few car shows display a larger variety of vehicles and attract more spectators.
“This is as big as any event that UVU stages on an annual basis,” says Don Wilson, chair of UVU’s Department of Automotive Technology.
For 25 years, the UVU Auto Expo has been a showcase for the institution’s continued presence in the auto trades and a source of revenue to fund scholarships. And for thousands of people, it’s a chance to show off that cherry classic car.
Spotlighting the trades
All car shows, obviously, focus on those who spend countless hours and dollars reconditioning their street rods, classic cars, trucks and motorcycles — and then transporting them from town to town to display. However, the UVU Auto Expo, hosted by UVU’s Department of Automotive Technology, shines a spotlight on UVU’s trade programs — a traditional and important element of the institution that persists under the university banner.
For the first 40 years of the institution’s history — as Central Utah Vocational School, then as Utah Trade Technical Institute and later as Utah Technical College — technical training was the institution’s primary role. Though now a university, UVU continues to respond to the educational needs of the region, which includes a select array of technical programs.
This is the message that Auto Expo organizers want the thousands who attend each year to absorb.
“I don’t know how you can miss it,” says Dennis Gage, host of the TV show “My Classic Car” and a special guest of the UVU Auto Expo this past year for the second time. “It’s really why this show takes place, and I don’t think there is any secret to that. I really think a lot of people come to the show because it benefits the school.”
The governor believes the event is highly effective in underscoring the fact that UVU still does great things in the trades arena.
“This is a great way of letting people know about one aspect of Utah Valley University,” Herbert says. “Besides all of the other great opportunities that UVU offers, it is still an institution that is teaching people how to be good mechanics and find good productive work in the marketplace.”
The expo is a reminder that the University’s auto, diesel and collision repair programs remain as strong, vibrant and vital parts of the University, educating and training about 400 students annually in both one-year and two-year programs.
The event also fosters appreciation for trade professions and the role UVU’s trades training plays in providing career opportunities for many of the region’s high school graduates.
“Some people just love to work with their hands,” Wilson says. “It’s their specialty, and we should encourage them to shine at it. Frankly, it’s a lifesaver for a lot of young people. There is nothing wrong with being a tradesperson or a craftsman, and we’re turning out some of the best in the nation at it. That’s something our community should be proud of and something this university needs to continue to support.”
History in the Making
UVU collision repair instructor Don Pendergrass, since retired, organized the first UVU Auto Expo in August 1983 as a replacement for the Utah Valley Old Car Club’s summer show and barbecue. Pendergrass believed holding the event on UVU’s Orem campus, outside the Sparks Automotive Building, would bring awareness to the institution’s trades programs and spotlight what UVU offers students in those fields.
“I wanted to bring people on campus and show them what we have here and what we are doing here,” Pendergrass says. “As far as getting people on campus, we were able to do that. We got a lot of potential students here and were able to show them what we could do for them.”
The auto expo doubled in size after only one year; with more than 170 cars on display at the 1984 show.
“I could see that this was going to be a very popular community event right from the beginning. We were very quickly outgrowing our facilities,” Pendergrass says.
Started in 1983, the expo had a brief hiatus before being revived in 1991, with then-UVU President Kerry Romesburg and Gil Cook, vice president of college relations, in support of the event’s mission to raise money for scholarships. All proceeds from the expo fund auto trade scholarships.
“From the very beginning this show has always been about the institution’s students and its auto trade programs, and how it can benefit both,” says Pendergrass.
Nearing retirement, Pendergrass recruited Ray Campbell, who was running a successful auto show in Provo at the time, to take the reins of the UVU effort.
Campbell continued with Pendergrass’ vision, insisting that the UVU Auto Expo remain a benefit to the institution and its students.
“Car shows unite and bring people together, showcase talent and craftsmanship, and accomplish a lot of good for the community,” Campbell says.
Campbell complemented the expo's classics collection by introducing the hot rod/street rod classification and muscle cars. In 1994, the expo began honoring various Utah car clubs and displaying the treasury of prominent local car collectors. Unique additions through the years have included specialty cars like the Batmobile, Mormon Meteor, Dodge Brothers Speedster, Auburn Boattail Speedster, the City of Salt Lake Salt Flats racecar and the UVU Wolverine Racer.
A steady increase in attendance and entries forced the expo to the grounds outside UVU’s UCCU Center in 1996. Continued growth brought about the move in 2006 to Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah — a site with facilities better suited to host an auto show and a site that can accommodate as many as 1,000 show vehicles and up to 20,000 spectators. The Thanksgiving Point location also helps the expo draw more Salt Lake County spectators.
“I think it’s tremendous how Ray Campbell and his people have been able to retain the UVU connection even with the move off campus,” Pendergrass says.
Engaging Industry Partners
One of UVU’s core values is to foster community engagement. The Auto Expo accomplishes this by bringing academia, industry and the community together for a common cause each spring.
“The students are involved, the community is here, people from the industry are here, our faculty and alumni are here,” Wilson says. “We have our industry people engaged with us. We have our industry supporting us. This show shows our students what their possibilities are.”
Perhaps the expo’s biggest benefit is the relationship it cultivates between auto-trades students and industry representatives. Many in the industry are loyal to the show and staunch supporters of the University.
“The expo connects UVU trade students with the local business community and showcases the excellence of the school’s programs,” Campbell says. “Those who visit or participate in the UVU Auto Expo see firsthand what can be done with good training and schooling. Those in the auto industry are being shown that UVU students are getting an industry-level standard of education, and that our programs are continually being upgraded to meet industry standards.”
UVU’s auto trades instructors are not simply pumping out potential employees into the job market; they’re producing highly skilled technicians who are filling high-paying jobs in the local auto industry. UVU graduates who have perfected their auto painting and collision repair skills are earning as much as $80,000 annually.
“We’re one of the last standing full-service training facilities around. Our students are learning by doing, and they have certain performance tasks that have to be perfected before we let them move on,” Wilson says.
UVU has proven for the past 11 years that its auto trade students are among the best skilled in the nation. At the 2011 SkillsUSA competition, where nearly 6,000 students nationwide participated in a trades-skills competition, UVU boasted 13 medal winners in the auto trade categories — second best of any institution in the country.
“We’ve really developed kind of a dynasty in the SkillsUSA competition. People in our own backyard don’t realize that they have the best in the nation right here,” Wilson added.
A month after graduation, Ryan Huntbach ‘11 was working as a line technician for a Salt Lake area Honda dealership.
“The education I received at UVU was pertinent and well-targeted toward enabling me to succeed,” Huntbach says. “The courses I took contained precisely the information and skills I needed. I apply the knowledge I gained in the classrooms and in the labs every single day I’m at work. I believe it was the solid reputation of UVU’s automotive department, and the opportunity UVU provided me to compete in the SkillsUSA event that enabled me to acquire such a great job right out of college.”
Revving an Engine
UVU’s automotive programs offer new hope for paraplegic student
In recent years, UVU’s automotive programs have breathed new life into automotive student Preston Vernon — a life that was dealt a challenging blow in spring 2010 when a dirt bike accident in Utah’s West Desert paralyzed him from the waist down. For months afterward, Vernon dealt with his crippling back injury by sitting at home in his wheelchair, becoming a video game junkie, and believing that his disability meant the end of his passion for tinkering on cars and engines.
But after one day in Bob Campbell’s engine performance class at UVU, all that changed. Vernon realized there were accommodations for his disability, even in the auto trades. He tossed his Xbox in the closet, ended frequent visits to Redbox and reignited his passion for automotive work.
“Getting back in, I realized that I could still do a lot of the stuff on cars that I could do before,” says Vernon, 21. “It’s motivated me more and more to keep going because I still have the opportunity to do something I love.”
Hugh Rode, a neighbor and a recently retired UVU legal studies professor, gives Vernon a daily lift to and from campus. Rode’s garage, to some extent, has become Vernon’s auto shop.
“There were times when you couldn’t get Preston going,” Rode says. “Now he almost needs to slow down. It’s been a real life changer for him.”
Vernon disagrees when people tell him a desk job would be so much easier.
“I don’t want to sit behind a desk. My desk is sitting behind an engine,” he says. “I love this stuff, and the more I do the happier I am.”