He flirted with greatness as a stock car driver, then carved out a long career as an innovative, eccentric car owner and racing businessman.
Emanuel Antonius Zervakis wasn't a stock car racing superstar, but everybody inside the sport knew "The Golden Greek." He flirted with greatness as a driver, then carved out a long career as an innovative, eccentric car owner and racing businessman.
His advice was sought at all levels of the sport. Car owners, drivers and mechanics alike consulted him. Teams hired him to gain an edge over their competition. With NASCAR at Richmond International Raceway for the weekend , Zervakis is the missing man. He died on June 25. He was 75 and he had been out of racing's competitive loop since a 1994 stroke severely limited his ability to communicate.
But memories of "The Greek" remain fresh. The son of a Greek immigrant father and a Native American mother, Zervakis was a hard worker from his boyhood - running a paper route, working at his father's restaurant on Midlothian Turnpike, toiling at a junkyard, doing odd jobs at Royall Speedway. He parlayed his knowledge of cars and his desire to succeed into a racing career.
He started racing locally in 1950, was immediately a track champion. Young Zervakis would even show up for dates driving a rumbling race car. His future mother-in-law insisted that he park blocks away so as not to disturb her Chimborazo neighborhood.
Zervakis pushed on to NASCAR's top league, then known as the Grand National series. He finished first in a race in 1960 at Wilson, N.C., but was stripped of the victory after Joe Weatherly filed a protest regarding Zervakis fuel tank, even though mileage hadn't influenced the victory. The tank's capacity was found to be slightly over the legal limit. Weatherly was awarded the victory in the 200-lap race. His fuel tank was not inspected. Contemporaries say that when he was asked how he knew Zervakis' tank was illegal, Weatherly grinned and said, "because I was running the same tank he was."
Zervakis won two races in 1961 - a 200-lapper at the half-mile track in Greenville, S.C., and a 500-lap event at the quarter-mile track in Norwood, Mass. - and finished third in the series standings that year. Surrounding Zervakis in the top eight finishers that year is a hall-of-fame roster of the era: champ Ned Jarrett, Rex White, Zervakis, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, Jack Smith, Richard Petty. Zervakis' oldest son, Butch, recalls how much the sport meant to his father, the driver. "When he had been to a race, we'd go to the bedroom door in the morning and look in while he was still asleep," said Butch Zervakis. "If there was a stack of money on the table, we knew he'd won. He was gonna be in a good mood." Butch said his father, having grown up in hard times, was a taskmaster himself. "
As a dad he was very hard. . . . There was no praise, not to you. He might tell somebody else he was proud of you, but he wouldn't tell you." The elder Zervakis had been no outstanding scholar, but he put a premium on his sons' education. "I had been skipping a lot of school," said Butch, "and he found out. I'd been coming to the shop to work in the afternoons, and he told me if I wasn't going to school, I'd better get to the shop in the morning and work a full day. "I tried that for a couple of days, and he wore me out. I'd had enough of that. I went back to school." But the tough dad would defend his son, too. "My principal doubted my word about something once," said Butch, "and he called dad. My dad said, 'If he told you what he told you, it's the truth. I'll stand behind that.'" Butch, 52, and his brother Michael, 50, still run Stock Car Products Inc., the nationwide racing-parts and race-car-building business their father built. Brother Ronnie, 48, is a Philip Morris employee.
Emanuel Zervakis broke his kneecap in a fiery crash at Southside Speedway in 1964. The injury, his business concerns and reluctance of his insurers to underwrite a race driver led to an early retirement from driving.
Zervakis became a builder/engineer/owner of race cars. Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and Ray Hendrick were among his drivers. His longest-running success was with Richmond restaurateur Sonny Hutchins behind the wheel. From 1970 to 1980 they won hundreds of races and several track championships. "Emanuel was always experimenting with the car," said Hutchins, 74. "He would try something that nobody else had and we would be unbeatable. We'd win 20 out of 30 races. But he was never satisfied, and the next thing he tried might not work. Then we'd have a hard time winning anything for a while. Hutchins said he enjoyed tweaking the ever-serious Zervakis. "We'd be running great, out in front, and I'd start singing to him over the radio. He'd get on there and tell me, 'Pay attention to what you're doing before you wreck my car.' "Or I'd brace the steering wheel on my knees and go by the pits with both hands in the air, waving at him. You should've seen him." In 1979, when Hutchins was ready to limit his driving schedule, he recommended that Zervakis take on a young Modified driver, Geoffrey Bodine. Zervakis and Bodine proved a perfect match with their single-minded approach to the sport and understanding of the subtleties of race car suspensions. Bodine moved to Richmond and lived in his recreational vehicle at Zervakis' shop off Jefferson Davis Highway. "I'd visit my wife and kids in North Carolina when I could," said Bodine, "but I spent most of my time there, working on the car. It wasn't much of a home - an RV parked behind the shop with the smell of the tobacco coming from Philip Morris next door - but it was worth it."
Bodine was an immediate winner in Zervakis machinery. Driver and owner pioneered power steering in the bulky stock cars, now standard throughout the sport. In two years together they developed a series of chassis and suspension innovations - so successful and so difficult to duplicate and master that some of them were soon outlawed by NASCAR. "He was a great owner," said Bodine. "He'd let me try anything I wanted on the car. He'd let me make mistakes, and after the car didn't perform the want we wanted it to, he'd say, 'Okay, what did you learn?" With Hutchins, Bodine and later Butch Lindley at the wheel, Zervakis made forays into Winston Cup racing. The efforts against NASCAR's elite showed promise - qualifying up front, leading races. Hutchins qualified on the outside front row in a race at Martinsville and out-gunned pole-sitter Richard Petty to take the early lead. In another race at Martinsville, Lindley finished second, narrowly defeated after making an extra stop for fuel.
But the impressive on-track showings never resulted in the major sponsorship necessary to run a first-class Winston Cup team. Zervakis remained a background figure in the sport - constructing cars, offering advice, building a legacy that touched countless teams. "Dad was standoffish. He wasn't an outgoing personality," said Butch Zervakis. "He understood the politics and the corporate side of things, but he didn't want to play that game." Bodine credits Emanuel Zervakis with opening the door that led to his long career as a Winston Cup driver - 37 victories and more than $12 million in winnings to date. "He took a chance on me," said Bodine. "He didn't know if I could drive those big, heavy Grand National and Winston Cup cars. We both found out I could. "I had two really fun years with Emanuel and his three boys. And the things I learned from them made a big difference in my career." Zervakis' reputation made him an enduring source of information and race car theory. Alan Kulwicki, a college-educated engineer and Winston Cup champion, called Zervakis nearly every week to consult. Davey Allison was a regular caller. Dale Jarrett made a point of thanking Zervakis for helping him on the way to his first Winston Cup championship.
Copyright Randy Hallman.