Many years before the Corvette would end up becoming what it has and before anyone really gave it much thought Don Yenko was eating, breathing, and sleeping the Vette. It was almost his birthright to enjoy all that Chevy had to offer as his father was a Chevrolet dealer and enjoy the Chevys he did. He not only excelled in the world of Corvette racing but also went on to try to make other Chevy models into his own personal Corvette propelled machines.
In 1957 Yenko got his first taste of Corvette racing. While at the track he stretched the truth a bit in order to gain some favor and a ride. That one ride was all he need to get hooked. After some finagling he convinced his father to sponsor a race team and all of the sudden Yenko was thrust into the world of Corvette racing entering SCCA events all across the country. His success was as fast as his cars were and soon Yenko began to garner some attention.
After Yenko co-founded the Corvette Club in Western Pennsylvania he would stumble onto his greatest break in his driving career. The club ended up recruiting Grady Davis who was the vice-president of Gulf Oil and Davis liked what he saw. Davis liked it so much that in 1961 Gulf Oil agreed to fully sponsor two racing Vettes and hired Dr. Dick Thompson as one of the drivers and Yenko as the other. For the next three racing seasons Yenko and Thompson would enjoy much success and a good number of podiums with Gulf Oil as their main sponsors. These three years were highlighted with Yenko taking top honors in the production B class and winning the title in 1962 and 1963.
When Gulf Oil hightailed it from Corvette in favor of the Ford Cobra Yenko could have followed. But he stayed loyal to his roots and to the Chevy brand and still enjoyed four more divisional championships and a coveted GT victory in Sebring in 1967 before his racing career ended.
Even when he was away from the track Yenko was thinking Corvette. In 1967 when Chevy began production of the Camaro Yenko decided he didn’t like the engine that came stock with the new sports car. He then began to modify SS Camaros by talking out their 369 cid engine and replacing it with the Corvette’s beefier 427 cid engine. He then modified the suspensions and the rear axle and made what would be known as the Yenko Camaro. He didn’t stop there and tinkered with other Chevy models as well such as the Chevelle and the Nova. Whenever he performed a modification he did so with the Corvette on his brain.
In 1972 with his racing career over and his desire to wind down just a bit kicking in he decided to stop producing modified cars and instead began to focus on his publication of a performance parts catalog for cosmetic and engine modifications. One of his most notable products was the ZL-1 engine which he produced under licensing permission granted by Chevy.
His passion for speed lead the racer to obtain his pilot’s license and that would ultimately prove his demise. Sadly in March of 1987 Yenko and three passengers were all killed when a Cessna 210M that Yenko was piloting had a rough landing and bounced off the runway eventually crashed into a ravine.
While the legend is gone he will not soon be forgotten, especially by those in the Corvette Nation. In 2000 he was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame and will forever be immortalized there and in the hearts and minds of all those who had the privilege to watch him race or to enjoy a product he produced.