“When I got there I told them I wasn’t interested, but decided to try it,” he said. “I ended up taking first place in my class, and that’s what got me into racing autocross.”
The 64-year-old’s red 1966 Austin-Healey Sprite, purchased directly after that first race in Tahoe, has been awarded the top prize in its class by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Sacramento Chapter every year since 2008. He and his wife, Anne, spend most weekends from April to October traveling to various autocross races around Central and Northern California to compete.
Autocross is a timed competition in which drivers individually race around a defined course usually marked by cones on flat, sealed surfaces such as parking lots or airport tarmacs. Official autocross events in the United States are sanctioned by SCCA and the National Auto Sport Association.
Cars have actually been a running thread throughout the couple’s time together. The 1971 MGB-GT British sports car that Mendenhall raced in his first autocross event was also at the center of his and Anne’s “first date” in 1980.
The two were acquainted through the printing industry. She worked for a company in Modesto and he taught at Modesto Junior College.
He called on Anne for a ride to pick up the MGB-GT and later took her to Burger King for dinner. They were married three years later and have two grown children, Sarah and Breeanya.
Mendenhall was born in Sacramento but spent most of his childhood in Missouri, where his father, Lauren, owned an auto parts store and raced stock cars.
“I kind of grew up around cars and racing,” said Mendenhall of what became a lifelong interest.
The family relocated to Modesto when Mendenhall was 12 and, upon graduating from high school, he moved to Boise, Idaho, where he lived with his cousin and raced stock cars at Meridian Speedway.
“What I learned from that experience was racing is very expensive and you’re not going to be competitive if you don’t have money and a good sponsor,” he said.
Mendenhall’s racing career was put on hold when he was drafted by the military in 1969 and served in both Korea and Vietnam.
Rather than continuing to pursue stock car racing upon completing his military service, Mendenhall returned to California, where he attended Modesto Junior College and later Cal Poly. He went on to attend San Jose State University and completed a masters degree in printing, a career path he first entered as a teenager when he worked as a printer for his high school district.
During the years the Mendenhalls were working and raising their family in Modesto, they would take mini-vacations to Columbia and stayed at the City Hotel to go hiking and wine tasting.
They enjoyed their experiences in the area so much they long-planned on moving when both retired, but that changed in 1999 when Mendenhall received a job offer from Columbia College as the Dean of Vocational Education.
“I first said no because I planned on retiring at MJC, but we came up and looked around and decided against waiting until the end of my career,” he said.
The Mendenhalls moved to their current 10-acre property on a ridge atop Big Hill, and Gary continued in his position at Columbia College until retiring in 2010. Anne still works part-time in her longtime job at the printing company in Modesto.
After his first 2006 race in South Lake Tahoe, Mendenhall began researching autocross cars and came across the Austin-Healey Sprite he purchased on eBay. He initially had the engine worked on at a garage in Stockton and has since done all the work himself with help from Anne and his brother-in-law, Lance.
A fun part of the sport for Mendenhall has been constantly making improvements to the car he lovingly refers to as “The Red Rascal.”
“Basically, the challenge is finding new race technology that you can adapt to a car that’s 40-plus years old,” Mendenhall explained. “Slowly but surely over time it’s gone from a cute little red sports car to a bad-fast autocross race car.”
His wife serves as his crew at races, checking tire pressure and making adjustments where needed. She said that she doesn’t worry about him while he’s speeding around the track because he’s a skilled driver, but there were a couple times early on that got her heart racing.
“One time in Stockton he took a corner and the car came up on two wheels,” she said. “We’re not talking about just a little bit of air (between the tires and the ground), there was a lot of air. That was kind of scary.”
She said competing over the past seven years has also provided many opportunities for the couple to spend quality time together.
“Sometimes we leave (for an autocross race) on a Friday and don’t get back until Sunday,” she said. “We usually stay at a nice hotel and go out to dinner, so it’s a lot of fun. It’s really a continuation of the strong relationship that was there before.”
Mendenhall’s most recent accomplishment came at an October awards banquet hosted by the SCCA Sacramento Chapter which awarded him the championship again for the “G Prepared Class.”
Classing is determined by the number and types of modifications made to the vehicle, while championships are determined based on the number of points earned racing at various autocross events throughout the year, according to the SCCA’s website.
“The Red Rascal” also took First in Class at the SCCA Sacramento Chapter’s year-end enduro race and was featured in a 2012 issue of Pylon, a national autocross magazine.
Mendenhall said there was a time when he thought he would revert the car back to stock but has since made too many modifications. He said each year as race season approaches he tries to be a little less intense about autocross, but his competitive spirit can’t be tamed.
“Every year I start getting excited about doing something different, trying something different and making it go faster,” he said.
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties