Feature Article from Hemmings Muscle Machines
June, 2008 - Daniel Strohl
Don Yenko knew exactly what he wanted: to become the Carroll Shelby of the Chevrolet world, to put his name on a car and to have people instantly recognize it as the leading performance version of that car. And he did indeed get what he wanted.
Just not with the car he initially intended.
Shortly after Don was born in 1927 in southwestern Pennsylvania, his father, Frank, started a Durant dealership in 1928, then a Chevrolet dealership in 1934. The Chevrolet dealership, located in Bentleyville, Pennsylvania, took off and Frank opened a second in nearby Canonsburg in 1949.
Don, however, didn't join the family business right away. He earned his pilot's license at 16, served in the Air Force, then attended Penn State University for a degree in Business Administration. Only after graduating, at age 30, did he return to Canonsburg and the dealership and decide to start racing Corvettes.
By the mid-1960s, however, Corvettes had grown weighty and the Mustangs and Cobras had gained dominance on the racing circuit. "I got tired of looking at the rear bumper of Mark Donohue's Mustang," Yenko famously said. So Yenko took a cue from fellow racer Shelby--using his connections through the dealership--to create a Chevrolet specifically for road racing.
Yenko chose as his subject the Corvair Corsa, lighter than the Corvette by about 500 pounds. According to an article he wrote for the June 1966 issue of Sports Car magazine, Yenko originally designed the aero body add-ons using cut-up pizza boxes. He didn't get approval to run his modified Corsa in SCCA until November 1965; significant only because he needed to build at least 100 such cars by January 1, 1966, to fully qualify the cars for D Production racing. He got the 100 Corsas from Chevrolet and, along with his staff at the dealership, converted them all into Yenko Stingers in less than two weeks.
"The story of the Yenko Stinger tells the story of Yenko Sportscars," Mark Gillespie wrote in The Yenko Era, his book collecting various tidbits of Yenko history. "Everything that came later was tempered in the crucible of the Stinger. What Yenko Sportscars demonstrated was that a small, close-knit organization, staffed by motivated people and without the support of a major manufacturer, could succeed."
Yenko himself both raced and sold Stingers, but perhaps more importantly, he established a nationwide network of dealerships that would sell the cars (one of which was Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago). The Stinger proved competitive, and thus the program continued into 1967, but Yenko soon decided to apply what he learned with the Stinger to the Camaro Z/28 and take it into A Sedan and Trans-Am racing.
That effort, which he called the Camaro Stormer, fizzled quickly; Yenko sold just two. He soon tackled another project with a decidedly different take on the Camaro. Rather than prepare it for road racing, Yenko saw that Chevrolets, hamstrung by GM's 400-cu.in. limit for intermediates and compacts, could no longer compete in both stoplight and sanctioned drag racing, especially when stacked up against the various Hemi-powered Mopars and 427-powered Fords.
Enter Dick Harrell, who had previously worked with Nickey Chevrolet, and Bill Thomas, who helped Dana Chevrolet in Los Angeles develop its Camaro 427 conversion. Both Harrell and Thomas showed Yenko how to drop 450hp and 410hp 427-cu.in. big-blocks into the Camaro and create supercars capable of dipping into the 11s at the dragstrip.
The Yenko Super Camaros took off, assisted by Harrell's dragstrip campaign in one, and spawned similar 427-powered Chevelles and Novas. By 1969, Yenko had convinced Chevrolet--via the COPO program--to plant 427s into Camaros at the factory, saving Yenko the costs associated with the engine swap. Yet the same bugaboos of rising insurance costs and governmental oversight that curtailed the factory muscle offerings also put an end to the Yenko Camaros after 1969.
Yenko made a few attempts to skirt those roadblocks with the Yenko Deuce, a small-block-powered Nova, and the Yenko Stinger II, a turbocharged Vega, but the Deuce proved short-lived and the Stinger II's turbocharged engine ultimately didn't make it past the Environmental Protection Agency.
All this time, Yenko continued to race Corvettes, either on his own or as a co-driver with a number of prominent Corvette teams. After the Yenko Supercars program came to a close, Yenko continued to sell performance parts through a catalog and through his dealership.
But by 1982, even that came to an end when he sold the dealership. Five years later, still an avid pilot, Yenko died when he crash-landed his Cessna near Charleston, West Virginia.
This article originally appeared in the June, 2008 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.
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