Written by Aaron McKenzie, Photography by Tamar Abrilian
Dec 21, 2022
"Anything that makes your mother cry," the American writer PJ O'Rourke once observed, "is fun." If you happen to be Yunni Zhai’s mother, then, you might want to stop reading right now because Zhai is having the time of her life and she’s fully aware that her mom won’t be happy to hear about it.
"I hope my parents don't read this article," says Zhai. "I sent my mom a picture once of me holding my helmet at an autocross event and she got so mad. She just thinks anything related to motorsports is dangerous."
Zhai’s secret is safe with us. We won’t tell her mom that Zhai is (probably at this very minute) either up to her elbows in engine grease or fighting to maintain grip in her 1997 Mazda Miata as she comes out of Turn 4 at Willow Springs Raceway. For her part, we recommend that Zhai maintain secrecy by not publicizing her automotive adventures on Instagram where hundreds of thousands of followers might tune in to watch her learn how to wrench and to race. As long as we don’t talk and she doesn’t post, Mom doesn’t need to know anything.
When Zhai was a child in her native Shanghai, China, her family had little reason to suspect that their daughter would one day be the sort of person who owns “two and a half Miatas.” And why would they? While China’s car industry has grown along with its economy over the past forty years, cultural and financial forces have constrained the local car culture. Chinese families, as a general rule, simply have no reason to suspect that their daughters will grow up to become gearheads.
“China didn't start building cars until very recently, so it doesn’t have the automotive history that other countries have,” says Zhai. “And you can pay $100,000 just to get a parking spot in an apartment building, so we’re really limited on space where we can work on cars.” As a result, Zhai was not merely indifferent to cars as a youth, but actively scared of them, opposed to the idea of ever owning one for herself. “I thought I would never, ever get a car because it seemed so dangerous,” says Zhai. “I just knew I would crash.”
Zhai came to the United States to study psychology and economics at Pepperdine University when she was seventeen years old. Over the ensuing years, she did what she was supposed to do: she got good grades, graduated, and got a job doing procurement in the hospitality industry. Little by little, though, she found herself drawn deeper into the Southern California car culture, and she was not content to merely drive or look at these machines. She wanted to know how they worked – and, more importantly, how to work on them. Before long, she was taking evening classes in automotive mechanics at Cerritos College, where the coursework quickly moved beyond basic maintenance.
"I was taking Engines 101, in which we each had to take an engine apart and put it back together by ourselves and record some information necessary for rebuilding the engine in the process," says Zhai. "I was the only student who didn't get a partner, which made me happy because it would force me to learn everything." Which sounds great, except that, when things go wrong, there's no one else to blame.
"It was midnight on the night before the project was due and I was in the shop, falling asleep while torquing the head with my eyes half-closed,” says Zhai. “I thought I had finished everything, but then I looked up and saw the head gasket sitting over by the window. I really wanted to pretend that I hadn’t seen it but I had no choice but to start all over again.”
When one makes such mistakes in a quiet garage in the middle of the night, no one else needs to know about them. Even before she started coursework at Cerritos, however, Zhai had opted to embrace her learning curve and to broadcast it for all to see on her Instagram and TikTok series, “Yunni’s Car Stuff,” where to this day she continues to document her automotive education in the hopes of inspiring other would-be home mechanics.
“I wanted to share my learning process to show people that, first, it's not as difficult to get into cars or to become hands-on as it initially seems” says Zhai, “and I also want to show people that they shouldn’t be ashamed to ask simple questions like How do I change my oil? or How do I change my windshield wipers?”
From the outset, things didn’t always go according to plan.
"The first project I ever posted was me doing the halo headlights on my Miata," says Zhai. "I did a terrible job – I didn't even use electrical tape and the whole thing fell apart in three months. It all just melted."
While this first hiccup did not deter Zhai from learning and from sharing her experiences online, she did have to learn to navigate the negative comments that are endemic to the online world and which quickly started to appear in response to her own posts. “I still remember the time I got my first hate comment,” Zhai recalls. “I came home from work and I just laid on the couch and cried. I mean, I'm not a robot. I do get hurt.”
“These days, I'll sometimes respond to those comments and start a conversation,” she continues. “Once people understand your perspective a little they might realize, ‘Okay, you're not what I thought you were,’ but I've also had to realize that I can't change everyone, I can't fight everyone. It’s my responsibility to make sure I am okay with those hate comments if I'm going to pursue this public journey. I've also built my own self-confidence over the past few years. I used to get insecure and think people didn't like my content, or that they'll just see me making mistakes, but I've grown and I can now tell myself, ‘It's okay, I know what I’m doing,’ even if I also know I'll make plenty of mistakes.“
Zhai has come a long way since those early days: among her latest posts (as of this writing) is a video of her wrestling with a cherry-picker engine hoist as she pulls the engine out of her 2003 Mazda Miata, which she’s building with an eye toward competing in the Miata SuperSpec Cup race series in California. Having tracked her 1997 Miata at various Southern California circuits for several years now, Zhai is intimately familiar with the benefits of this barebones platform for beginner racers.
“These cars are so raw,” she says. “You have no ABS. You have no traction control. You have to learn exactly where the limit is with your car, and it's not going to save you; you have to do it yourself. Few other platforms give you the opportunity to really dive in like these do. It's so rewarding knowing I can compete with people in faster cars with my little hundred horsepower Miata – and I get a lot more budget-friendly practice sessions since the car is lightweight and doesn't go through tires like a big horsepower Corvette or a Camaro would.”
This is not to say, however, that Miatas don’t pack their share of headaches and heartache into that compact frame.
“Miatas are great for training but it infuriates me that they just keep breaking,” says Zhai. “Anything can break in the most mysterious ways, so you're always wrenching. Last weekend, on the way back home from the track, my left window stopped coming up so I had to drive home in 50-degree weather with the window completely open, and I thought, ‘Why did I sign up for this?’ There are certain things you really just don't want to have to fix."
Even as she rolls her eyes at her Miata’s idiosyncrasies, though, Zhai knows that the headaches – and the process of resolving them – are all part of her larger mission: inspiring other novice mechanics and racers to dive in, make mistakes, and learn from them.
“People tell me, 'Hey, I saw your video and I got the courage to go to my first track day, and I had a good time,' or 'I saw your video and bought my Miata and I started learning how to work on it,’ says Zhai. “A science teacher even messaged me to say that he used my videos in his class to inspire his female students and to show that this stuff is not just for boys. To know I’m having his kind of positive impact is so rewarding."
And maybe, just maybe, one of these days, Zhai will manage to persuade her own mother that this is not all just one massive, dangerous folly.
“One day I want to take her to the track for a lap or two,” says Zhai. “I know she's going to be terrified but I think it will be a good way of showing her that ‘Hey, I'm actually doing something cool, I know what I'm doing, and I can make it work.’”
Tamar Abrilian is a photographer based in Los Angeles with an eye for zooming into details that make both cars and the people who drive them special.
Aaron McKenzie is a Los Angeles based writer, photographer, and producer with an eye for all things automotive. You can see more of his work by checking out his Instagram.
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