The Racing Wrench: How restoring vintage cars led to a young man’s motorsport passion
Gerardo “Junior” Mendez never dreamed of being the “garage guy” for a couple of millionaire vintage motorsport enthusiasts. But often the biggest detours in life are blessings in disguise.
“My parents originally emigrated from Mexico to Wichita, Kansas,” says the 24-year-old. “Somehow my older brother and I got into working on cars. He went the diesel route and is a mechanic for Caterpillar. After high school, I joined the Marine Corps Reserve and served for six years as a motor vehicle operator while attending McPherson College. My grand idea was to graduate with a degree in automotive restoration, then go work for the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California.”
Mendez graduated in 2020 and left the Corps in 2021. He ended up in Costa Mesa—the home of Navitas Fuel Authority. The vintage car restoration and private race prep shop is owned by MotoAmerica founding partner and Petersen Automotive Museum chairman of the board, Richard Varner, and Thomas Hartline, a strategic energy investor and founder of Oklahoma’s Navitas Utility Corporation.
“When I interned there, I helped with some specialty metalwork on a 1978 Toyota FJ55 Land Cruiser they had in the shop,” Mendez says. “They gave me a vehicle to drive—even paid for my gas while I was here—and eventually offered me a job.”
Mechanic, engineer, fabricator, and shop manager. Mendez now runs a one-man operation where the responsibilities are complex but the job perks are plenty. The shop has around 20 motorcycles and 15 cars that are raced in several series.
When Mendez isn’t prepping a vehicle for the track, he’s doing general maintenance or playing catch-up on other pet projects. The shop is home to a number of Porsches in various states of repair, and depending on the day, Mendez might be working on a widebody 914, chipping away on the restoration of a 356, or turning a 968 into a race car.
He’s also close to finishing that FJ55. “For this kind of job, you have to be flexible—not someone who needs an immediate rush from checking tasks off a list.”
The payoff of working in a private garage, says Mendez, is the freedom and challenge of being called on to fix, restore, and customize “the toys” Varner and Hartline entrust to him. He loves the variety. And then there’s the new thrill of racing.
“I’m fortunate to have the bosses I do. They encouraged me to take a racing course. So we took a 2014 Porsche Cayman—probably the best car for new drivers to learn how to race—made a few handling modifications, and then drove it at Buttonwillow and Thunderhill here in California.”
Mendez says he aims to race the modern-day version of Mexico’s La Carrera Panamericana, which originally ran from 1950 to ’54 on open roads. The current 2000-mile multistage event follows the historic route through the mountains of central Mexico and towns like Guanajuato, where Mendez still has family.
Channeling his passion for restoration and newfound love of vintage racing, Mendez looks forward to establishing a deeper connection to the place he’s from. That just might be the most rewarding detour he’s come upon so far.