Tomorrow’s Technician and B’laster Corporation – makers of the penetrant, PB B’laster – partnered to search for automotive technology instructors who think outside of the toolbox with the first-ever “B’laster Instructor of the Year” program.
Throughout the school year, we shared the stories of seven amazing automotive instructors who were in the running to be named the B’laster Instructor of the Year winner.
Here is the story about our inaugural B’laster Instructor of the Year: Joe Mendola of Gaither High School.
Joe Mendola is a car guy through and through. Mention a town near Tampa, Florida, and Joe has probably restored a car parked in a nearby driveway. He’ll describe the car in vivid detail down to what’s under the hood, and even remember where he bought the parts.
As the automotive instructor at Gaither High School, Mendola has passed on that enthusiasm and passion for automotive repair onto his students.
Catch a Gaither auto student in the shop and they’ll show you the vehicles they’ve fixed and the cars that will make it to the drag strip with an excitement that mirrors their instructor. Mendola’s creative teaching and his dedication to his students made him the clear winner of the inaugural B’laster Instructor of the Year award.
“Joe Mendola’s deep passion for his craft and his students showed in the projects they are working on and in his efforts to connect his students to both the industry and the wider community surrounding Gaither High School,” says Randy Pindor, president and COO of B’laster. “This unique level of passion and dedication was what we were looking for in the Instructor of the Year.”
Because of Florida
To really understand Mendola’s passion for teaching, restoration and racing, you have to go back to where it all started: Florida. Upon meeting him, you’d always think he lived in Florida with his laid-back vibe and a subtle tan from the always summer rays, but like many, Mendola left the harsh weather of the Northeast for the sunshine state.
When Mendola was a teenager his family would leave their home in Buffalo, N.Y., to vacation in Florida every summer. Fascinated by the vehicles that didn’t have all the rust from the harsh Buffalo weather, a young Mendola would spend a good amount of his time at a local auto body shop just staring at the amazing cars coming through the bays.
“These guys were building hot rods and they had ‘72 Chevelles and ‘69 Camaros, and they bought them brand new and they were still flawless,” recalls Mendola.
“I fell in love deeper with cars, hot rods and drag racing because Florida has some beautiful pieces of iron and there’s a drag strip on an hour away in any direction. And two hours away can put you at a facility that has national events from NHRA.”
Today, Mendola has turned that childhood fascination of racing and vehicle restoration into a career as the automotive technology instructor at Gaither High School. But, he got there by chance.
From Drag Strip to Classroom
Before teaching, Mendola worked a variety of jobs. As a kid, he had his own garage and truck, which he used to start his own towing business. Mendola later worked in automotive repair and later owned his own shop. He has been an ASE Master Certified technician for more than 30 years.
Mendola also started drag racing, which was what drove him straight into the classroom.
“I used to go to the local high school and bring my race car and do classes on how the race car worked, why it worked that way,” says Mendola.
“I even went to some of the grade schools and did classes and I really enjoyed it. And I noticed that I had 100% attention at all times.”
Other instructors noticed how much the students liked Mendola. A friend suggested he try teaching and got him a temporary job at Gaither High School.
“He got me hooked immediately. I got here and I was going to fill in for one year, and 19 years is gone already and it’s like I never worked a day.”
When Mendola started teaching, racing just became a part of that, too. In 1992, he founded Mendola’s Motorsports with his sons with a ‘73 Chevy Vega NHRA Super Gas car and his team continues to race in NHRA events. He has spent nearly 20 years of his drag racing career working and winning championships with his sons, and many of his students.
“Joe actually combines racing with automotive, that’s how he teaches,” says Alex Ruiz, a 2014 Gaither graduate and now University of South Florida mechanical engineering student. “And I thought that was really interesting and for someone like me who had no racing experience at all, but just wanted to learn about it, I thought what a cool way to do that being in school to work on race cars.”
The excitement racing exudes is what Mendola helps bring to the classroom by combining racing and teaching. Students experiences automotive repair in a whole new light by working on a car that will get to see pushed to its performance limits. Their current projects include a yellow 1973 Ford Pinto drag race car that is completely student built and a 2002 Winston Cup Monte Carlo.
“If there’s a performance car or drag car that has brake lines that needs to be rebuilt, and double flared, it seems like the students say, ‘Wow, he’s trusting me to do this most prestigious thing on this car that it’s going to be used and everybody’s going to see,’” says Mendola.
Beyond racing, Mendola is also a huge advocate of virtual learning and has a Smart Board set up in the classroom to use the web-based learning program, Electude. The virtual program features a 4-cylinder car that students can diagnose and repair. It’s scan tool feature also prepares students to use equipment that can be challenging to afford.
The Gaither Legacy
“I think what ultimately made the decision for us to choose Joe Mendola was his life-long expertise and passion that goes beyond just teaching the technical skills in the classroom,” says B’laster’s Pindor. “He really connects the students to their community, therefore, teaching them life skills to take with them into the professional world.”
Because of Mendola’s years of teaching, it’s not hard to find a technician in area who had him as an instructor and found success because of his class.
“To see what I produced is unbelievable. It’s just unbelievable,” says Mendola. “I didn’t do anything other than come here and enjoy the day…You can go across the street to any of these shops and walk in and ask if anybody went to Gaither and they’ll all raise their hand.”
Mendola is always there for his past and present students, even outside of the classroom. Calls are always answered and helping students is always a priority.
“He is a very generous instructor,” says William Gildersleeve, a senior auto student. “He’s always making time to help me with problems that might have with my truck or other students who maybe they might have with their vehicles.”
“I’ve been on the side of the road several times and even at night when he’s watching movies with his wife, he’ll answer the phone and try to instruct me on what to do with the car, so he’s really generous guy,” adds James Hatfield, a senior auto student.
No one knows Mendola should be the Instructor of the Year more than his students. They not only have an instructor and a mentor, but a friend always willing to help them out whether it has to do with cars or life.
“I think he deserves it with all the stuff he does for his students here,” says William. “He’s always making sure we have cars here to work on. He’s spending a lot out of his pocket to make sure we’re getting the education that we need.”
As for Mendola, the award means so much to him he finds it hard to put into words, but it always comes back to his students.
“I’m really proud of my guys,” says Mendola. “It’s really nice. I kind of feel as if that dash on your tombstone is going to have a lot in there. It’s gonna be full.”
About the B’laster Instructor of the Year Program
During an event at Gaither High School on May 1, Tomorrow’s Tech and B’laster awarded Mendola as the winner with a cooler full of B’laster products for the classroom, a $1,000 donation to the school’s automotive program, a $500 Visa gift card for Mendola, and a one-of-a kind B’laster Instructor of the Year trophy.
In addition to Mendola, the final Instructor of the Year finalists were:
- Jay Abitz from Freedom High School (Freedom, Wisconsin)
- Anthony Migliorini from Northview High School (Brazil, Indiana)
- Jason Anderson from Okeechobee High School (Okeechobee, Florida)
For more information about the B’laster “Instructor of the Year” program, visit tomorrowstechnician.com/instructor-of-the-year/. For more information about B’laster and its products, visit blastercorp.com.