On the Night Shift, Students Build Tractors, Confidence and More
“There’s something different about this tractor.”
Dan Brinkmann has heard that time and again over the last several years when he has taken rusty old tractors that have been completely restored by his students at Four Rivers Career Center to shows. He just smiles and tells them they’re right.
What makes them stand out?
“They’re smooth, very smooth,” said Brinkmann, automotive technology instructor of a voluntary extracurricular activity where students work as a team to restore rusted and broken down machines.
When the Night Shift students are finished restoring a machine, it is better looking than when it was new and first rolled off the assembly line, Brinkmann asserts.
“We were close to 3,000 hours of labor in that John Deere tractor,” he said, referring to the 1949 machine the students completed last school year for the Washington FFA. “You can’t put that kind of time into restoration if you are paying someone to do it. You would be so far upside down.”
Next week Brinkmann and six of the Night Shift crew who worked on the John Deere will travel to Indianapolis, Ind., to showcase their work in the annual Delo Tractor Restoration Competition.
For the second year in a row, the Night Shift has been selected as a finalist in the prestigious contest, which brings the country’s top teen tractor restoration specialists together.
All entrants to the Delo Tractor Restoration Competition are required to submit a workbook detailing the entire tractor restoration process, from mechanical overhauls of the engine, transmission and auxiliary and ancillary systems, to the external appearance of the tractors. Judges review these workbooks and entrant videos to select competition finalists.
‘That Old Truck Changed Him’
One of the benefits of the Night Shift is the confidence that the work instill in students, said Brinkmann. He’s seen it with many students, but one of the most uplifting was a young man who took on the job of polishing a semi-truck’s fuel tank. It’s a time-consuming job that requires a lot of prep work followed by hours and hours of backbreaking polishing.
The end result was as shiny as a mirror, so impressive that it attracted attention and praise from everyone who saw it.
“It looked gorgeous . . . everybody kept coming up to him saying, ‘Oh, my! Did you just do that?’ ‘I did!’ he’d tell them,” said Brinkmann. “He had no idea he was capable of doing that.
“He probably had seven to eight hours of polishing into the fuel tank to get it like that,” Brinkmann said, noting the process begins with cleaning, sanding and smoothing the piece. “Then depending on how rough it is to start, you just keep working your way up to it.”
The student left the shop filthy dirty from the work, “but you never saw a kid more proud of himself,” said Brinkmann with a smile. “That old truck changed him.”
By the time that student graduated, he had become a very confident young man, and Brinkmann knows the Night Shift played a big part in that.
“What good an old truck did for that kid,” he remarked.
Everyone Loves Tractors
While the group was still working on one of the semi-trucks, Brinkmann brought in an old tractor that belonged to a friend of his, Jack Brinker. The students sat up and took notice.
“Second gear was broken. So we dismantled it, fixed the transmission, and I started noticing kids kept migrating toward it,” said Brinkmann.
He realized he had found the Night Shift’s next project. After that first tractor, Brinkmann brought in another of Brinker’s old tractors, this one even more rough.
“It literally came on two pallets. Hauled the pieces in. The students looked at me like there was no way. But I said, ‘We can build this,’ and they did,” said Brinkmann.
“And the finished product was just a little bit better than the one before, just a little nicer. We got a little more efficient in our process and the finished tractor was a little bit shinier, a little bit smoother.”
The following year the Night Shift worked on a tractor that was very special to Brinkmann, a 1966 Massey-Ferguson that had belonged to his Uncle Jim.
“It was running, but was old looking, rundown, nothing special,” said Brinkmann. “Now it’s shiny and new looking.”
There were nine Night Shift students who transformed it, starting the week of Valentine’s Day and continuing until two weeks after school was out.
The finished product was “very high end,” said Brinkmann.
“We completely dismantled it. Cast iron is very rough when it’s finished, so we smoothed everything out, made it look like a plastic toy. It was stunning when it was done.”
Each of the students take ownership of some part of the rebuild so in the end, he or she can put a hand on a part and claim it as their own.
“They had to remove the part, repair it, refine it, paint it, then install it,” said Brinkmann.
The purpose of Night Shift is provide students an opportunity to get some hands-on experience and further their education on their own, said Musket. The only thing holding them accountable is their own work ethic and drive to succeed.
Since there are no grades and Brinkmann doesn’t take attendance, there is no penalty for not showing up. The work will simply progress without you, said Brinkmann.
He doesn’t mind when students who no longer want to be part of the group stop coming. If they don’t want to be there doing the work, then they shouldn’t be there, he said.
Brinkmann admits he never envisioned the Night Shift being able to have this kind of impact on students, but he’s proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish together.
“These machines seem like a carrot that works to get these kids motivated and eager to learn,” said Brinkmann, with a smile.