Most students don’t come to school expecting to rebuild a car engine, but for students in Henry M. Gunn High School’s automotive technology program, it’s just another day in class.
The automotive technology program — which is divided into two courses, Auto I and Auto II — has produced a series of impressive accomplishments, including appearances on the TV show “Top Gear USA” in 2019 and in the Guinness World Record for the category “Most Participants in a Car Race.”
Behind it all lies auto teacher Mike Camicia. Camicia, who said his passion for cars extends as far as his oldest memories, has served as the school’s only auto teacher for the past 26 years.
Originally, Camicia worked at a local dealership, where he became the shop foreman and led 18 mechanics. Twenty years later, seeking a career change, he applied for a job as the auto teacher at Gunn.
When he arrived at Gunn, Camicia said he found the existing auto program to be “a collection of dusty and empty classrooms.” Over the next two and a half decades, he would go on to create an auto program rivaled by few in the nation, Camicia said, and beloved by students.
“We’re always working on and talking about cars, never worrying about when the bell is going to ring,” senior Stefan Arias said. “It’s super fun.”
Today, the auto program features a myriad of equipment and tools, including car lifts, welding equipment, industrial drill presses and sheet metal cutters. Much of the equipment was procured by Camicia himself. Student enrollment is much higher today, with two class periods for each of the program’s courses.
Students in the auto program have the opportunity to work on unique projects, including one involving the transfer of a motor from a modern car to a vintage Model-T chassis.
“The Model-T is a really unique project,” senior Oscar Germanow said. “It’s getting a rotary engine swap from a Mazda RX-7, and I don’t think that’s ever been done before, so it’s super cool to have a one-of-one car in the class.”
Camicia emphasized the importance of students being able to recognize the significance of their own abilities to design and create, such as in the case of building the highly unique Model-T.
“There’s a satisfaction of taking … some rusty old parts, and making them do what you want them to do, you know?” Camicia said. “That’s something special. It makes you stand up straighter and say ‘Look what I did.’”
Throughout his time at Gunn, Camicia has guided students through working on more than 20 cars, ranging from restoring Ford Model-T’s to modifying Mustang race cars and creating “Toy Story”-themed pickup trucks. The program has even built full-scale replicas of toy cars from the ground up, fabricating everything from the chassis to the frame.
Auto program equipment isn’t just limited to class projects — in fact, students are encouraged to utilize class resources to repair their own cars. Germanow recently brought in his car with a damaged clutch. With Camicia’s guidance, the class repaired the clutch, saving Germanow more than $800 in parts and labor fees, Camicia estimated. Germanow said that hands-on learning has been integral to the program.
“Being able to work with my hands and physically experience the material keeps the class interesting and fun,” junior Julian Detering said.
Camicia’s dedication to teaching and love for automotive technology have inspired many of his students to professionally pursue their passion for cars. According to Camicia, over 20 of his students have found careers in automotive related industries. Ten students have ended up working at Tesla Motors, and one former student now owns Trackhouse Racing Team, a NASCAR race team.
“Part of the thing that makes that class so much fun is occasionally he’ll tell a story from some crazy automotive shenanigans that happened in his past,” Germanow said. “It’s really interesting. You’re having a problem with your car and he’ll talk about something he and his buddies did back in the day to get around a similar problem.”
Though Camicia is retiring, Detering said Camicia’s unique combination of dedication, enthusiasm and friendliness has forever changed Gunn’s auto program.
“I feel like there’s not a lot of people like him anymore,” junior Ethan Casale said. “It just won’t be the same.”