Valencia High School student Kelly Whetsel, 18, holds the keys to the Mini Cooper, 2 door, hard top that she won as part of the " Hart Wheels" AutoNation car giveaway Tuesday in Valencia. Dan Watson/The Signal

Valencia High senior wins new car

The tension was palpable as thousands of high school students attentively listened to names being called out over a sound system, but only Valencia High School senior Kelly Whetsel would be taking home the keys to a free car Tuesday night.

Whetsel won her white 2019 Mini Cooper Hardtop after her name was called out during the AutoNation’s “Hart Wheels” Student Car Giveaway, in which the dealership had donated the car to be raffled off to students who had achieved academic success.

Runner up Alyssa Rodriguez, left, looks on as Valencia High School student Kelly Whetsel, 18, realizes she has the winning ticket for the Mini Cooper, 2 door, hard top car that she won as part of the ” Hart Wheels” AutoNation car giveaway Tuesday in Valencia. Dan Watson/The Signal

“I have a twin sister and we have to share a car,” said Whetsel, explaining that now she and her sister won’t have to split their parents’ 2008 Nissan Maxima. She said she was “in complete shock.”

The event at the Valencia High School football stadium marked the third year AutoNation has done the giveaway, and this year close to 6,600 students in the William S. Hart Union High School District were eligible to win the car.

The students who qualified to win the car either have a 3.5 GPA or better to automatically qualify in the first or third quarter of the year, or have seen an improvement in their grade point average between both of those quarters, according to event officials.

Valencia High School student Kelly Whetsel, 18, sits in the Mini Cooper, 2 door, hard top that she won as part of the ” Hart Wheels” AutoNation car giveaway Tuesday in Valencia. Dan Watson/The Signal

“If you think about it, every kid tends to need some encouragement or incentive,” said Katie Cannon, marketing manager for AutoNation. “And what better way than a car to incentivize you to bring your grade point average up a little bit?”

During the dramatic ceremony, 10 students were randomly selected from the crowd of thousands to draw tickets. And, as ticket numbers were read, the students were eliminated until only Whetsel remained. Once realizing she had won a brand new car in what Hart district spokesman Dave Caldwell called a “life-changing moment” over the microphone, Whetsel put her hands over her mouth in shock and began to cry.

Valencia High School student Kelly Whetsel, 18, adjusts the radio as she sits in the Mini Cooper, 2 door, hard top that she won as part of the ” Hart Wheels” AutoNation car giveaway Tuesday in Valencia. Dan Watson/The Signal

As she walked to the car and shook hands and gave hugs to those cheering her on — mostly other students and parents who had ran down the bleachers to congratulate her — she remained partially speechless except for a few words and laughs with friends. She remained in this same state all through the first time she sat down in her new $27,000 car and honked the horn for her friends standing by.

“We love being a part of the community, love being able to show the community that AutoNation loves and cares about them,” Cannon said, “and we also love that we can give kids encouragement to improve their grades.”

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