Joanna Zieglar still has the big tub of toy cars in her bedroom. She’ll probably never get rid of them.
It reminds her of the days on her bedroom rug when she was 3, no more than 4. She’d lose hours of her day, using fake money to create on- and off-ramps as part of a make-believe city full of toy houses and toy cars no bigger than the palm of her hand.
She did that until she was a sixth-grader Aycock Middle School, until volleyball, track and schoolwork stole her time. But she never lost her love of cars, and she thinks about that now as she gets ready to graduate June 11 from Dudley High.
There, she rediscovered her passion for all things automotive.
She became a key member of Dudley’s Automotive Vehicle Technology team, one of its few female members. She built cars, traveled to national competitions, toured automotive plants, visited automotive museums and learned about electronic wiring.
Along the way, she found friendships with teenage boys she saw as brothers.
She stayed with Dudley’s AVT team for three years. During that three-year span, she lingered after school almost every weekday, coming in weekends, working as early as 6 in the morning and staying sometimes two hours after midnight.
And to think, she found the ATV by accident.
Joanna was a sophomore when she found Dudley’s garage. She came from her engineering class to get a solar panel from Ricky Lewis, Dudley’s automotive instructor and co-advisor with Deborah Vincent to Dudley’s AVT team.
What she found were students talking to engineers. These students, she discovered, cobbled together cars out of discarded signs, motorcycle tires, usable trash and automotive spare parts and had them run on batteries and alternative fuel.
She got curious, and she asked Lewis if she could join. Lewis, of course, said yes. He wanted more female members on his team. Since then, Joanna has made the garage her after-school home.
She did lose track of time – just like she did in her bedroom with her tub of toy cars. But she loved it. She gained confidence and self-esteem that’ll help her forever, and in a few weeks, she’ll graduate with honors from Dudley High, ranked 15th in her class of 263.
Next stop? George Washington University. She’s thinking about studying communication or radiation technology.
But she’s not sure what she’s going to jump into. But she does know she wants to join the school’s team that makes cars powered by solar panels.
For Joanna, that inner strength and her undergrad interests came from those days, months and years working in Dudley’s big garage.
“I’ve come to realize that I am capable of more than I think,” she says today. “When I started, I was terrible, and I worried that guys around me would judge me. But now, I’m very, very confident, and I’m willing to expand my horizons because I’ve been able to do things I never thought I could do. And that feels great.”
Today, Joanna can walk onto the floor of Dudley’s garage and point out two cars she helped build. Ask her about them and she has two descriptions for both – art and hard work.
Both cars are no more than three steps long, and both have motorcycle tires. One ran on diesel; the other on a 36-volt battery. The diesel car has a chair team members found on the side of a street and an undercarriage built from discarded signs from Dunkin’ Donuts store.
The battery-operated car has yoga mat foam for the body, a microwave bracket for the dashboard and plastic plumber’s pipe for the frame.
Both cars competed in the Shell Eco-Marathon competition in Detroit. Schools nationwide bring in cars students built to see which one can go the farthest on the least amount of fuel.
Dudley’s diesel car won third place. It could go 25 miles an hour and travel 78 miles on one gallon of diesel. It took Dudley’s AVT members two years to build.
The battery-operated could go 25 mph, too. But it didn’t win any awards. It did pass inspection. Joanna is proud of that. She and her team members built this car in three months, the fastest they’ve ever done. Plus, this is the car Joanna wired.
She never thought she’d ever do that. Lewis figured that, too, because of the questions she posed, the fear he sensed. But he knew she could.
“How do you eat an elephant?” Lewis asked her. “One bite at a time.”
“When she wired that car, a light bulb went off,” Lewis says today. “That told me she really had the determination and desire. She developed that herself.”
Joanna knew she had to push herself.
“When Mr. Lewis asked, I told him, ‘I don’t know anything about electrical things,” she says. “But now, I can say, ‘I can do this.’”
When visitors come to Dudley’s garage, Joanna always gives the tours. And when she does, she’ll often be in T-shirt sometimes wearing fake acrylic nails the color of pastel pink and lipstick whose shade is described as stoplight red.
So, when visitors see her standing 5-feet-10 and looking as she says like “such a girly girl,” they always have one question.
“I don’t see you working on these cars,” they say.
Joanna says she always grins. Then, she’ll go into the science and art of the cars in front, detailing how her 11-member team does this and does that to the car to make it workable and make it run.
The visitors nod and take it in. Joanna is breaking stereotypes. She does like that. She knows why.
“This,” she says, “is me being me.”