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Mr. Fix-it: Technician wins Subaru’s national competition

Mr. Fix-it: Technician wins Subaru’s national competition

With only ten years of experience, DeGraff cinches a win in Philadelphia and will head to the intern
Mr. Fix-it: Technician wins Subaru’s national competition
Capitaland Motors mechanic Seth DeGraff of Scotia checks the under carriage of a car he was doing an oil change on in Glenville Friday, September 23, 2016.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

The best Subaru technician in the country works at Capitaland Subaru in Glenville and has only been a mechanic for about a decade.

Seth DeGraff, 38, proved his elite status at a competition in Philadelphia this month where he bested 12 other technicians from across the U.S. in a series of repair exercises designed by Subaru.

DeGraff was selected to compete by a field service engineer for Subaru of America Inc., which has 13 regions throughout the country. Bill May, service manager at the Glenville Subaru, said DeGraff was picked because he was simply the best in the area.

“The field service engineer that goes to all the facilities around here gets to know the technicians, he works with these guys,” said May. “Their zone wants to beat the other zones throughout the country, so they picked the best guy and they felt that [DeGraff] was the one.”

In Philadelphia, the repair exercises included a written test, electrical test, engine teardown and rebuild, and precision measuring. In addition to the technical exercises, Subaru devised real-world scenarios in which a contestant would have to find a way to start a car that won’t start or identify an engine problem by listening to it run, all while being timed.

“We were given four minutes to listen to it,” DeGraff said of the listening exercise. “Then the next four minutes we thought about it and told our judge what we thought was wrong.”

The judges followed contestants closely, even tracking them at times into the vehicles they were working on. DeGraff said he would sometimes have to wait for his judge to exit a vehicle before he could.

Some of the exercises, which were done round-robin style at five different stations in front of spectators, were deviously designed. At one station, DeGraff remembers using a multimeter — a tool that measures electrical current and would be naturally unresponsive if the current being measured was dead — and thinking that the tool was defective.

He turned to the judge and said, “I think this is a bad tool,” said May. “The judge said, ‘Are you asking me or telling me?’ ”

DeGraff said that was all the encouragement he needed and told the judge his tool was defective. The judge pulled an item from his pocket that DeGraff needed to fix the tool, and DeGraff finished the exercise. Some other contestants, all of whom were male, got hung up on the dead multimeter, he said.

DeGraff wound up scoring 388 of a possible 500 points during the weeklong competition. His next closest competitor scored 320, while the third-place technician scored 280. DeGraff will be flying to Japan next fall to compete in the Subaru International Technician Competition, which is held every two years.

Young musician

DeGraff’s career path is a bit unusual, but provides useful insight into how he became the best in the country at fixing Subarus. He began playing violin at age 4, and was so good that in 1996 he played Carnegie Hall with the Empire State Youth Orchestra.

That experience made him comfortable in front of a crowd, which at the Subaru competition did not phase him at all (he said there were only about 35 spectators, some of which were friends).

DeGraff’s musical training helped him in another way too: he was one of the only competitors at the Philadelphia event who knew how to tie a tie from his violin days of playing in a suit.

“They asked for help,” said DeGroff of the other competitors. “I grew up playing violin and knew how to tie a tie. We had them all lined up.”

After high school, DeGraff earned a degree in carpentry and worked for several years in the construction business. In his late-20s he decided wanted to go back to school to be a mechanic.

He got a degree in automotive technology from Hudson Valley Community College in 2008, and wound up working for Capitaland Subaru. The dealership furthered his automotive education at Subaru’s schools, and DeGraff became a senior master technician, the company’s highest level of technician, in 2013.

Along the way, said DeGraff, his family has been hugely supportive. He borrowed tuition money from his mom to get the automotive degree from HVCC, and would often use his dad’s shop to work on cars. His father didn’t mind if he made a mess.

His dad accompanied him to Philadelphia where he watched the competition closely, so much so that he was able to predict with a high degree of certainty that DeGraff would take first place.

At the awards banquet he jokingly told his wife they were going to Japan. “And she’s like, ‘not yet, just relax,’ ” said DeGraff. “And then they called my name and it was amazing. It took a while to settle in and even now it’s hard to believe it. Because, like I said, I grew up swinging a hammer.”

So do you feel like you stole the Philadelphia competition?

No, said Degraff, who lives in Burnt Hills. “I worked hard to get here.”

He was also awarded a $2,000 check from Subaru of America Inc.

More to learn

DeGraff said although he’s the best in the country at fixing and tuning Subarus, he still has a lot to learn. He and the field service engineer had a “two-month cram session” to learn as much as he could before the Philadelphia competition, he said. Now he has over a year to prepare for Japan, training that will happen at Subaru of America’s headquarters in New Jersey and at the dealership in Glenville.

“It almost sounds like I’ll be doing more training than working,” said DeGraff, who will be facing about 15 other competitors from countries around the world next fall.

May said the dealership might suffer while DeGraff is training, but the payoff could be huge as the U.S. has never won the international Subaru competition in Japan.

“It’s tough, but it’s all for the good,” said May. “How many other dealers can say they’ve got this going on?”

When May met DeGraff during the interview process at the dealership all those years ago, he was impressed with his drive to excel in whatever he set his mind to, whether it be violin, building houses or fixing cars.

“He said whenever I do something, I want to be the best,” said May of DeGraff. “So I knew that eventually he would get to where he is now.”

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