The Sierra Reader
Terri Jo in her Bishop shop.
Dunaway dives into male-dominated auto mechanics
Terri Jo Dunaway isn’t what you’d expect of an auto mechanic. In conversation, she has a youthful enthusiasm and an infectious laugh; no wonder, considering she’s all of 31. Speaking of the reaction of some customers upon entering her new auto mechanic shop, TJ’s Firing Line in Bishop, Dunaway laughed, “I get, ‘Is your dad here?’ I used to wear pigtail braids and that used to really throw people off,” she added. “They’re like, ‘You’re 16!’”
But appearances in this case are deceiving. Dunaway, who has nurtured a passion for auto mechanics since her high school days in Bishop, knows her stuff. The Sheet sat down with Dunaway during a break from her work on replacing the rear differential of a ’98 Subaru Forester to talk about her love for auto mechanics, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field, and what’s in store for TJ’s Firing Line.
Sheet: What inspired you to open up the business?
TD: Basically, just working for people was not working out very well [laughs]. I just decided that I was more efficient by myself, and did it that way. A lot of events that were bad kind of forced me to do something good. You just take what you can and learn from it. And I’ve always wanted to open a shop, ever since I was in high school. I didn’t know how realistic that was but I’ve always wanted to.
Sheet: How did you become interested in being an auto mechanic?
TD: I always wanted to be an artist when I was little, and then got older and realized, well there’s no money in that [laughs]. I was like, well, I just want to do something really challenging to keep learning. I took auto shop in high school for four years, and my parents bought me a broken Volkswagen Squareback. There was a burned up motor in it, so I had to take it over to Tim Miller at Sierra German Auto. His nephew and I were best friends in high school.
So we worked over there for two periods a day for school and got the car running, and I just decided to do it. Because it was interesting and challenging, and nothing else really caught my eye. So I went to Tech school in Laramie, Wyom. The same year I graduated from high school I graduated from Tech school, and I moved back here. It was really very intimidating when I first started.
Sheet: What was intimidating about it?
TD: A lot of the male mechanics don’t take you seriously, and they don’t want to help you out. I went to school and I was book smart about this, but I didn’t have really any technical skill. So I found that I learned most of what I know in the field after I was in school.
I just went back to school because I wanted to become a smog tech, because I felt that Bishop and Mammoth really need another place to do smog. Because Mr. K always gets booked up. So I thought, well, you know, it seems like a lucrative thing to do, and it looks interesting. And I also just got sick and tired of going to people and asking questions like, “Well, okay, this is broken, but why?” You know, and I couldn’t get an answer.
So I went back to school in June of last year and took an advanced diagnostics program. At the end you get your smog certificate, and it was fantastic. They had all the answers I was looking for. I learned so much; I don’t even know how I was a mechanic before I went to that class. It was completely eye opening; it was exactly what I needed to keep going, and to give me the confidence to open up and do my own shop, because I didn’t have to rely on anyone else’s knowledge. I mean, you always have questions, and you’re always learning and always will be learning, but at least now I have a better core understanding of where to go and how to make decisions.
I can’t badmouth the guys I’ve worked for, because I’m thankful for all the chances I got. It’s just, the politics between men and women kind of get a little funky sometimes [laughs]. It was better to work by myself.
Sheet: It seems to me that many people think the gender dynamic is not an issue in professions anymore.
TD: Oh, it still is. What I find, too, and I don’t mean to be biased or anything, is that women, because it’s more of a challenge, women that really do get in there [into auto mechanics] and do it are far more educated and knowledgeable than the men that are in the field, because they had to try a lot harder. I know I did; I had to try a lot harder. And I was the only girl in the class that I just graduated from, and I graduated at the top of my class. So that was a great accomplishment. It was eye opening, because I never knew what my skill level was, based on other people’s skills.
And I think a lot of women are really intimidated by [auto mechanics], and it’s sad, because it’s not like you have to have big muscles to do this. I really feel that women could bring a different dynamic to the job. I have small hands, so I can fit in smaller places and do tricky things. So it’s just different, but it’s good.
Sheet: So you think more women should enter the field of auto mechanics?
TD: I’d like to encourage more women — I’ve been thinking about having a class every weekend, to have my customers or whoever is interested bring in their car and walk them through changing the oil and checking everything. Just get started, so they’re not walking up to a shop and being clueless. Because I find even these days that women are still getting pushed over. I mean, it’s amazing. It happened to me once, and I was just like, no, you don’t understand, I know what I’m talking about! [Laughs]. You can’t try to do that to me.
It’s really sad, but I’m getting a lot of female customers that are just thankful I’m here. I have a lot of customers that followed me from Mammoth, too. I’m pretty well off; I’m doing good.
Sheet: It looks like you’re busy.
TD: I did take off running, yeah. I didn’t expect it, but it did happen, so I’m thankful.
Sheet: So you were working up in Mammoth?
TD: Yeah, the first serious auto mechanic job I had was with Bob Borah of A-1 Auto Repair. Unfortunately he’s passed away. But he said, I’ll sit down and I’ll watch you and help you out, and he was willing to do that. He didn’t pay me very much, but that’s what I needed. And the shop was a disaster [laughs]. So yeah, he got me in the door; I worked with him for five years.
And then I went to work for Tim Murphy at A & A Garage, and that was great, too. He was really awesome. We had a lot of wonderful customers there, and I really got to know the business. So I worked in Mammoth for about 10 years.
Sheet: But you’re from Bishop, originally?
TD: I was born and raised in Bishop. Bishop and Mammoth, because I went to school actually from preschool to sixth grade in Mammoth and then we moved down here and I continued school. So I’m a half-breed.
I did find that it was very, very, very hard, even though I’m from here, born and raised here, it was really hard to get my foot in the door down here in Bishop. For whatever reason Mammoth is always more open to me, being a woman, but down here, no. I applied to every shop here 50 million times. Just finding a shop to rent, there’s no commercial space available down here, so I had to piggyback with someone, and Steve Garrison was nice enough to help me out and I’m so thankful, because it’s just working out perfectly.
Sheet: Do you specialize in anything in particular?
TD: I do, I specialize in Subarus, and that is because up in Mammoth, you know, they’re everywhere.
Sheet: They are. I own one.
TD: [Laughs] I own three. So it just kind of happened. I work on so many of these, how can you not know the tricks of the trade? I love them. I speak their language for some reason.
Sheet: Could you describe how a Subaru is different from another car?
TD: Subarus are a lot different from other cars. They’re very similar to Volkswagens in the sense that they’re a boxer motor or pancake motor. They just have the perfect little square motor. Subaru just seems to really have thought out where everything is, the placement of everything, and they don’t change a lot, so everything is really similar on every make and model. It’s not like you look at them and it’s a puzzle. But not everybody feels that way [laughs].
Sheet: Is there another kind of car you like working with, too?
TD: You know, I’ve got a lot of experience with pickups. A lot of Chevy trucks. Chevy trucks I love working on.
I really don’t like working on German cars. I have a lot of experience with those, too, but the Volkswagen and the Mercedes — some people speak that language and some people don’t, and I don’t speak German.
Sheet: How about smog checks? Should customers book in advance?
TD: Typically not. And that’s what’s great, is that I can do it in the same day if I’m not completely slammed with other things. Which is helpful for people. If they’re coming down from Mammoth and they can only go to the DMV once, they can pop in, get a smog, and go. I had five of them yesterday. It comes in waves. Sometimes I’ll go for a week without one, and then the next week I’ll have 50 of them. It’s crazy.
Sheet: Sounds like a lot of work.
TD: It is, it’s fun, though.
Sheet: So do you have a long-term vision for the shop?
TD: My goal is to one day own my own garage. Hopefully in a couple years Steve will sell it to me, or something will open up. I’m already saving, so I definitely want to open my own place.
TJ’s Firing Line is located on 386 Sneden St., Bishop, in the Marsh’s Automotive garage. The shop is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday by appointment. For more information, call 760.258.1342.
— Katie Vane
Katie is a writer at The Sheet.
Transcript below the article.
In-Depth and Personal with Teri Jo Dunaway
Teri Jo Dunaway was proudly born in Bishop, delivered by Dr. Denton. She was raised in Mammoth until the sixth grade and then moved back to Bishop. She graduated from Bishop High School in 2000, where she took four years of auto shop. She followed that career path right out of high school by attending Wyoming Technical Institute in Laramie, Wyo. She graduated from the automotive core program at Wyo Tech and returned to Bishop, where she began her career in the automotive field at A-1 Auto in Mammoth Lakes. She furthered her education at the Wyo Tech Sacramento campus, graduated from the automotive advanced diagnostics course with honors, became master ASE-certified and returned to Bishop to open her own auto repair and smog shop. She married the man of her dreams in October 2013. “I love the Eastern Sierra and can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she said, adding that she enjoys hiking, biking, kayaking, quadding, and anything outdoors. “I’m proud to be a Bishop local and provide a useful service to my community.”
What is your idea of bliss?
A soak in a hot tub and a couple massage with my darling after a long day tearing up the high desert mountain dirt roads on our quads with Pearl Jam blasting on my headphones.
What scares you?
Speaking in public and the word “normal.”
With whom do you identify from history?
Billie Holiday for her strength and perseverance as a black female artist in a white man’s world and Abraham Lincoln for his ability to be compassionate and powerful all at the same time.
Whom do you admire?
My husband, Louis Armstrong, and anyone with a dream that will make the world a better place and the determination to see it through to the end.
What among your traits do you dislike the most?
My shyness in public situations.
What trait do you most dislike in others?
What or whom do you despise?
Clay Matthews’ hair.
What is your extravagance?
Spending money. Dang you, Amazon.com.
What is a favorite trip you have taken?
When I eloped in Palm Springs.
What is the most despicable character flaw?
Unwillingness to learn.
Do you lie?
Yes, but rarely. I’m only human.
Who is the greatest love of your life?
My amazing husband.
When in your life were you the happiest?
What hidden talent do you have?
If there is grease, I will find it. And I can blow spit bubbles off the tip of my tongue, but I don’t do it too often because it grosses people out.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Graduating with honors and a special award at the top of my class full of boys in automotive advanced diagnostics.
In your next life, you want to be…
A giant sequoia tree, or a nutritionist, or both.
What is your favorite way of relaxing?
Laying next to the pool at Keough’s in the sun listening to music.
What quality do you most admire in a man?
Integrity and determination.
What quality do you most admire in a woman?
Integrity and determination.
What do you most admire in your friends?
I admire that they are not afraid to be themselves or be honest, even if it hurts.
What do you most dislike?
That I don’t spend enough time with my friends.
What is your motto?
Work hard, play hard and learn to swim.