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Piston Scholar Nigel Bannister Wants to Open his Own Restoration Shop

At the young age of 18 and a freshman at the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, Ohio, Nigel Bannister has already immersed himself in all things automotive, including high-performance technology programs at the college, restoring a freebie 1987 Corvette, and even spending weekends working on a pit crew for a NASCAR Xfinity Series racing team.

He didn’t really expect his life to take that turn, but, after learning to drive while in high-school in Seattle, Washington, he came to the realization that he had a passion for cars and working on them. That passion led to his being gifted that ’87 Chevy Corvette.

Now, as a 2023 Piston Scholar, Nigel is benefitting from the scholarship he earned from The Piston Foundation, and is learning all aspects of the auto restoration trade, helping him to reach his goals to open up his own automotive restoration shop after graduation.

By Judy Stropus

April 10, 2024

A Serendipitous Encounter

“I got my driving license in my junior year in high school, driving some kind of sedan the driving school provided,” Nigel explained, “and a month later I was just walking down the road and there was a car with a ‘for sale’ sign on it. I was just a teenager wanting my own car and hoping to borrow money from my parents, and I texted the guy. I thought it would be a fun car to cruise around in.

“He was super cool and a nice guy. He told me the car had been sitting out front of his house for 10 years or so and thought it was time to get rid of it. He said he had an offer for three grand, and I told him I couldn’t match that. I’m just a high school student, but I can assure you it will have a good home. I’ll fix it up.

“He decided to give it to me, saying, ‘I don’t know too much about it. It was my father’s; you can have it. It’s been sitting for a while so you’re going to have to do a bunch of maintenance on it.’

“I then just started to look up things, read a bunch of service manuals, and I learned as I went. And, since then, fixing up old cars has been my passion.”

“Manual Man”

Even though the Corvette has an automatic transmission, Nigel did learn to drive a “stick” through watching videos and driving old cars in and out of the work bays in high school. “I learned in my free time,” he said. “I looked up a few videos, and then got the chance in shop class to pull cars with manual transmissions in and out of the bays. So I kind of just figured it out as I went.”

After attending West Seattle high school, where he had signed up for an automotive course to continue his education, he moved to Lima, Ohio, to attend the University of Northwestern Ohio.

The Corvette remains in Seattle, and Nigel drives a 1989 Chevy C/K 1500 Pickup truck in Ohio. “Sadly, it is so automatic,” said Nigel. “I bought it to fix it up along with my progress in school. So, as I take the classes, I’ll apply what I learn to build this truck to be a great running vehicle. And, if I like it, I’ll keep it. If not, I’ll sell it and someone else can enjoy all that I’ve done to it.”

The College Path to a Car Career

Classes at UONO are quite detailed, Nigel admits. “There are a lot of classes. Every piece of a car is broken down into a class. For example, the first class I took was automatic transmissions. For a whole chunk of time in that class, all I did was take apart transmissions, put ‘em back together and learn exactly how they work. It’s really detailed for just that one section of a car, but that means it’s a good program so that I can understand it to the full extent.”

“I also took a class where I took apart an engine. I measured every single thing – the pistons, the cylinders, all the different measurements you could do to an engine. And then I put it back together and torqued everything and made sure it was good and ready to run. It taught me exactly how each piece comes off and how each piece works.”

Nigel is only a freshman but he already has an inkling as to where he’d like his career path to lead. “Eventually, I do want to open up my own shop for older vehicles,” he said, “and I’ll either fix them up or make them better or whatever the customer wants – hopefully after three or four years. Before that, I’m thinking I’d work for a shop that’s already built to see how it is, see how they operate it and learn from them. I will look into internships while I’m still in school.”

Cool Car Clubs and the NASCAR Connection

Joining clubs at one’s school can help generate friendships and even opportunities. Nigel was a member in high school of the aptly named “Greasy Peeps,” which boasted a marshmallow peep mascot holding a wrench.

But it was the “Over the Wall” club in college that created a new adventure for the ambitious student. The members practiced NASCAR pit stops, and Nigel made enough of an impression to be invited to work for a NASCAR Xfinity Series team. “So, I went with JD Motorsports to Daytona Beach, for the Daytona 500. Not for the Cup series but for the Xfinity Series. The race got rained out and I had to go back to school, but I had fun prepping the car and pushing it through and wrenching on it,” he said.

“I went to the next race in Atlanta, and did the same and it was a great experience. So, I go to a race almost every weekend now and help the mechanics on the car. I’m not good enough yet to do an actual pit stop, so I just do a bunch of the mechanical stuff.

“I don’t necessarily get credit in school for it, but it will look good on my resume.”

Nigel’s American Favorites

Although he’s worked on BMWs, some Mazdas and Hondas, his favorites are still the home-grown American cars. So, he surprised us when he told us he’d like to have an older Datsun 280-Z. “I think that would be pretty sweet,” he said. “I love the headlights on those. I also like the first-generation Toyota pickups or 4Runners.”

A Family to Lean On

His family supports him fully on his automotive journey, “but they’re not really into any automotive stuff,” said Nigel. “My brother Colston helped me with the Corvette. There haven’t been too many hurdles, other than keeping myself focused, knowing that I’m the one pushing myself towards this goal. My parents love to see me succeed, but they don’t know exactly how to help me get there because they’re not interested in the same things. It’s been hard on my part to just keep pushing.

“Parents should be very supportive,” Added Nigel. “They should help their child figure out what they want to do and which path they want to pursue, whether it’s racing in NASCAR or INDYCAR or being a mechanic in a dealership. My dad helped me narrow down exactly what I wanted to do.”

Today a Piston Scholarship, Tomorrow a Car Career

The Piston Scholarship has been key in Nigel’s progress. “It has helped me pay for tuition so I can save a chunk of my money for when I do decide to start my own shop. It also gives me the opportunity to be in school to learn a lot more than what I’ve known before,” he said.

“It was a lot of work to apply for the scholarship, but it was definitely worth it. I’m out here pursuing my career and learning a whole ton.

“I just love restoring old classics, making them look like they came out of the factory. It’s different for every person in my generation.”

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