February 20, 2009
Mechanic enjoys puzzle of car repair
“A Day in a Life” is a peek into the lives of every day people. The series runs twice a month on Fridays.
By KATIE HALL
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Gary McCracken Jr., who co-owns Main Street Auto Repair at the corner of Randall Street with his father, checks the underside of a vehicle at the garage.
Living and Leisure Editor
Gary McCracken Jr. said he was always “tinkering on things in the back yard” — taking things apart, fixing them, putting them back together again.
He put that sense to work at Main Street Auto, where he started repairing cars professionally full time after college.
The Groton man, 32, is now co-owner of the Cortland business with his father, Gary Sr.
“We do all the billing, appointments here together,” he said earlier in the month.
McCracken and his father log between 40 to 60 hours a week, six days a week.
“We stay here as long as we have to, to get the job done.”
McCracken Jr. got his associate’s degree from SUNY Morrisville in drafting and design but didn’t want to pursue a career in architecture.
“I didn’t mind it, but it just wasn’t me — the whole office cubicle thing. There was a lot more involved with the job. I knew there was more money (in) architecture, but I didn’t have the desire for two more years of college with a job that just wasn’t me. ... I wasn’t enjoying my work. That means more to me than a paycheck.”
McCracken said his father always told him: “The business is always here. If it’s something you want to do, it’s here ... He never pressured me.”
He decided to go for it.
“I’ve always had an interest in putting things together, fixing things. ... We are doctors essentially, but not on human body. It’s a car, but it’s the same thing. We get a set of symptoms and have to find out what’s going on. Unfortunately, we only make a fraction of what doctors make.”
McCracken started his full time work at the garage after graduating college in 1997. A chance arose to buy out his father’s former business partner, Bill Dallaire, who left and started the Beach House on Main Street. McCracken became a partner with his father.
The shop provides general repairs — anything but body work, air conditioning, alignments and transmission work.
“If a customer wants us to do that, we can take care of them. We can take their car to a shop that we work with,” he said.
“I always feel good about the fact that you are able to help people out on what they need on an every day basis — their car. They are lost without it.”
Main Street Auto also is an air distributor for Empire Air Gas, selling oxygen and acetylene for welding torches. They also sell nitrogen to bars and restaurants for draft and keg systems.
“College students come in for their taps for keg parties. (We sell) torch supplies for guys that do welding and cutting.”
Mechanics can delve into whatever area of expertise they want to provide, he said.
“For every issue, you need education — for air conditioning, brakes, exhaust, suspension, basic engine repair, transmission. There’s so many different areas. Each requires its own set of tools, education and equipment. If you want to be good at what you can do, you need a good understanding of what the car does, from head to toe.
McCracken is president of the Cortland Chapter Business Development Group of seven auto related businesses independently owned: Main Street Auto, O’Shea Tire, Tallmadge Tire, Byron’s Service, Craig’s Total Auto Care, NAPA on Main Street and Hartley’s. “We stick together to educate our mechanics and give back to the community,” he said.
“One of my main things here is driveability (issues), diagnostics, electric and computer (systems)”: If a car is running rough, if the check engine light is on, the thing’s not running right.
He doesn’t have a favorite car.
“They are all horrible when they break,” he said. And they’re all good when they are repaired.
Mechanics separate cars into three categories: domestic, Asian or European. Domestics are the Chryslers, GMs, Fords. Asians are the Nissans, Toyotas and Hondas. And then there are the European cars, the BMWs, Saabs and Volvos.
It’s easier to solve domestic car problems, because the amount of information on their repair and the parts are the most plentiful, he said.
“European cars are the worst. They have their own set of everything,” he said. German cars in particular, he said.
What he enjoys the most, and what he finds the most challenging, is dealing with the car’s computer. “The amount of equipment and equipment requirements is constantly changing,” he said. It is necessary to keep updated in that particular area a couple times of year. The little silver boxes that issue controls to engine parts, are located under drivers’ seats, in wheel wells, and in engine compartments.
“Newer cars have several computers. There are so many different computers and so many different things that they control. You can’t keep it in one computer.”
McCracken loves working the laptop, using the scanning tools and manipulating the software.
“It’s what I like — figuring out what’s going on with it. It’s like a puzzle. You test for things and put pieces together.”
The future of the shop is in wireless lap top and using the Internet as a diagnostic tool, he said.
McCracken thinks newer cars are being built better.
“You are finding things are lasting longer. With that comes a higher need for maintenance. It’s getting to be where mechanics do less repairs and more maintenance to keep it in shape. If you have a newer car, between 5 and 10 years old, you do maintenance ... Now with the economy, (people) tend to neglect their cars, (not) tuning the engine, (not getting) the oil change. You open the door for major break downs. Instead of $20-$30 on oil change, a $100 tune up, now you are spending several hundred dollars, newer cars possibly thousands.”
One of his customer’s check engine light came on and he ignored it on a car that was one or two years old. Not taking care of the problem took out important emissions components, knocking out two or three catalytic converters. This turned into a couple thousand dollar repair.
“The downfall of newer cars, they are so sensitive. It doesn’t take much to damage them.”
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