His legacy still glitters
Local legend rode the cutting edge
BY RANDY HALLMAN
-TIMES-DISPATCH ASSISTANT METRO EDITOR
wasn't a stock car racing superstar, but everybody inside the sport knew
"The Golden Greek." He won two races in 1961 in NASCAR's big-league and
finished third in the season point race.
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
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
Grand National series
1961 third place trophy
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 and was a
champion at short tracks like Southside Speedway.
He finished first in a
race in 1960 at Wilson Speedway, 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."
- 1950: started racing in
the Hot Rod class at Royall Speedway (later Southside
Speedway), won season championship
- 1959: won Modified season
championship at Southside Speedway
- April 17, 1960: won Grand
National (later Winston Cup) race at Wilson, N.C. -
disqualified for oversized fuel tank
- April 1, 1961: won
200-lap Grand National race at Greenville, S.C.
- June 17, 1961: won
500-lap Grand National race at Norwood, Mass.
- 1961: finished third in
Grand National season standings
- 1970-80: as a car owner,
won hundreds of races and several track championships with
Sonny Hutchins driving
- Early 1970s: fielded a
car for Ricky Rudd's first superspeedway victory, a Busch
Grand National race at Dover, Del.
- Fielded successful Busch
and Winston Cup cars for a variety of drivers including Dale
Jarrett, Mark Martin, Geoff Bodine, Butch Lindley, Bill
Dennis, Ray Hendrick and Ted Hairfield, among others
Emanuel Zervakis # 85 at Yankee 500 - Talking with
Rex White, 1960 GN Champion
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
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."
Zervakis had the ear of
virtually everybody in stock car racing,
including seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty
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
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.
The sport will long
feel the influence of "The Golden Greek."
Randy Hallman covered motorsports for The Richmond News from '72-87.
Sad News: Emanuel T. Zervakis, age
73, died June 25, 2003 following a lengthy illness. He is
survived by three sons, Antonious “Butch” Zervakis and his wife,
Tracy, Ronald and his wife, Beverly, Michael and his wife, Elva.
He is also survived by his wife, Marie Zervakis of LaCrosse,
Virginia. Included in the family are three grandsons and two
granddaughters. Mr. Zervakis was a Richmond businessman,
automobile racer, promoter and fostered the careers of many
nationally known racecar drivers. Mr. Zervakis received early
fame as a racer, known as “The Golden Greek.” He won his first
Winston Cup race in 1961 at Greenville-Pickens Raceway in
Greenville, S.C. He established Stock Car Products to build
racecars and became a national figure on the racing scene for
many years. The family will receive friends from 7 to 9 p.m. on
Friday, June 27 at the Bliley Funeral Homes’ Chippenham Chapel,
6900 Hull Street Rd. The funeral service will be held on
Saturday, June 28, at 11 a.m. in the Joseph W. Bliley Funeral
Homes’ Chippenham Chapel, 6900 Hull Street Road. Interment at
Dale Memorial Park. Following the funeral, there will be a
reception for close friends at Mr. Zervakis’ home. (Richmond
Cotton Owens in the #6 Pontiac, and
Emanuel Zervakis in the #85 Monroe Shook owned Chevrolet are seen here
going through the turn in the 1961 Daytona 500. Owens finished 5th, and
Zervakis came in 18th that day.
Emanuel Zervakis / Butch Lindley History
1982, Butch Lindley drove Emanuel
Zervakis’ #01 Buick with sponsorship from Miller in 4 events. In their
first outing together at North Wilkesboro, the Buick lost its engine
after only 65 of the events 400 laps. But in the team’s second outing,
in the Virginia National Bank 500 at Martinsville, Lindley qualified
14th and finished second to Harry Gant, who won the race by lapping the
entire field. Lindley would suffer engine failures in the team’s other
two events during the season.
Lindley and Zervakis also
campaigned a NASCAR Busch Series car during 1982, the #81 Pontiac at the
season’s 3rd event at Bristol, where they were sidelined with a rocker
arm failure, and then the #01 Pontiac. In the third Busch Series event
of his career, Lindley won the Spring 220 at Richmond. He then scored a
3rd place finish at Dover and then sat on the pole and won the Roses
Store 200 at South Boston. When the Busch Series returned to South
Boston for the Lowes 200, Lindley qualified on the pole again and
finished 4th. When the Series returned to Bristol in August for the Pet
Dairy 150, Lindley finished 2nd. At Richmond, in the Harvest 150,
Lindley qualified 7th and won the event. He qualified 6th for the Autumn
150 at Martinsville and finished 2nd to Sam Ard. When the series
returned to Martinsville for the Cardinal 250, Lindley qualified 6th and
scored the win.
In 1983, Lindley started in only
2 NASCAR Winston Cup Series events. He finished 11th in Zervakis’ #01
Miller Time Buick at Richmond, and 25th at Martinsville driving Bill
Terry’s #32 Buick. He competed in 25 of the year’s 35 Busch Series
events driving Zervakis’s #01, Dana Racing’s #36 Pontiac, Kerry
Bodenhamer’s #01 and #36. Lindley scored poles at South Boston and at
his home track in Greenville, South Carolina. He won the Goody’s 200 at
Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, North Carolina after qualifying 2nd, and
he won the DAPCO 200 at Greenville-Pickens from the pole.
Emanuel Zervakis / Rick Rudd
Ricky Rudd / Zervakis
(r) Busch Win
Ricky Rudd # 01