Greatest Athlete #11: Sacks’ love of cars was born in Mattituck

RUSTY KENNEDY/ASSOCIATED PRESS | The car of Mattituck' Greg Sacks sails over Lake Speed's wrecked car at Pocono International Raceway during the A.C. Spark Plug 500 NASCAR race in Long Pond, Pa., July 23, 1989.

Greg Sacks was around 11 years old when his life changed.

A self-described “competitive kid” who’d always enjoyed racing bicycles in the woods near his parents’ home on New Suffolk Avenue, or go-karts in the old A&P parking lot, Sacks took a trip to Riverhead Raceway with Edie and Parker Wickham, friends of Greg’s parents, Arnie and Pat.

The Wickhams owned the Mattituck Airbase and supported Gary Winters, who competed at the quarter-mile oval in Riverhead.

“It was 1963 or ’64,” the now 58-year-old Sacks recalled. “They swung by in their ’63 Corvette, and picked me up to watch Gary race. It was my first time at the track, and I just loved it.”

Eventually, Sacks and his father bought an old car and turned it into a beach buggy, which he raced against friends. Then, Sacks’ friend Bob Cidone of Mattituck made the 16-year-old an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Cidone drove in the Novice class at Riverhead and built a Figure Eight car. “He asked me, if I wanted to, he’d qualify and I would drive in the race,” Sacks remembered. “I said, ‘I’m in.’ ”

There was one catch. “He told me, ‘You can’t stop at the X,’ ” Sacks said. “I got T-boned once, I T-boned a car in front of me. The car got towed, and everyone in the grandstand wanted to see who was this crazy kid?”

Greg Sacks rounds out the first half of the Times/Review series on the 20 Greatest Athletes in area history. Check out the top 10, beginning Monday.

Over the next 40 years, that kid enjoyed a racing career that saw tremendous success as a Modified driver, 263 starts in NASCAR Winston Cup (and later, NEXTEL Cup and Nationwide Series) races, more than $3.4 million in earnings, and what many call one of the great upsets in stock car history, when he won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway in 1985.

Sacks, who lives in Port Orange, Florida with his wife, Vicky, doesn’t race as much as he used to but is still very involved in the sport. He and his sons, Paul and Brian, own Grand Touring Vodka, a spirits company that sponsors the No. 88 car driven by Eric Almirola for JR Motorsports, the NASCAR Nationwide Series racing team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Almirola drove the Grand Touring Vodka Chevrolet to a fourth-place finish July 30 at the Kroger 200 in Indianapolis, the team’s third straight top-five finish.

Sacks was behind the wheel when the car made its debut in July 2010 at Daytona in the Subway Jalapeno 250 — on the 25th anniversary of his victory in the Firecracker 400. “I started seventh, and was running fifth,” Sacks said. “I really had visions of grandeur.”

But Sacks spun his tires after a restart, “and from there it was all downhill.” He finished 21st, but his teammate, Earnhardt Jr., won the race.

Sacks said it won’t be his last. “Retirement? There’s no such thing,” Sacks said with a laugh. “That’s not going to happen. I don’t think drivers ever retire. They just pass on. Driving is not about age, it’s about desire.”

When he wasn’t scouting for parts at Freddy Gallo’s junkyard, Sacks was trying to learn as much as he could from the Riverhead drivers.

“There were so many great drivers back in the day on Long Island,” he said. “John Ambrose, Junior Ambrose, Joe Krakowski, Jim Malone, Charlie Jarzombek, Fred Harbach, Jimmy Hendrickson. One week, I lost an engine. John Ambrose gave me one to use to compete against him. That’s just the way it was.”

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED/GETTY IMAGES | Greg Sacks (40) and Sterling Marlin (4) at Bristol Motor Speedway and on the cover of the July 24, 1995 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Sacks was named Rookie of the Year in 1970, and raced at both Riverhead and Islip Speedway in those early days. He and Vicky were married in 1975, and son Brian was born soon after. His final race in his own car was the 1978 Race of Champions at Pocono Raceway; he was running second when his engine blew with 10 laps to go.

It was then that Sacks started thinking about getting out of the driver’s seat. He had a family and worked for his parents’ produce business on the East End. “I just felt that maybe it was time to get away from the hobby,” Sacks said. “You work all day at your job and then work all weekend on your car.”

But soon after Sacks put his cars up for sale, his phone started ringing. On the other end were people who wanted Sacks to keep driving — for them.

“I didn’t know I had that option,” he said. “It changed everything, and my career went from being just a hobby, to a hobby that I was paid to do. What better life is there than to make your living doing what you love to do? That’s the pinnacle.”

In 1979, Maynard Troyer of Troyer Race Cars had customers who needed drivers. Sacks raced for the first time out of state in Massachusetts and won, the three drivers behind him representing the event’s previous nine victories.

Sacks decided to make a run at the Winston Cup Series, going to Florida in 1980 to meet with Richard Childress and Junior Johnson. Sacks drove at a test session at Daytona with Darryl Waltrip, and was turning in some very fast times. But in a later run, the car flipped.

“It was scary,” Sacks said. “One of the rescue workers told me they thought they’d lost me because I was hyperventilating; it wasn’t until I was on the board that I took a deep breath. I woke up in the hospital with a broken collarbone, cheekbone and the doctor was stitching my head.”

Sacks said the whites of his eyes had turned red from broken capillaries. “I came home, and my kids ran up to me, and then they just stopped.”

Sacks returned to the open wheel Modifieds and continued to excel, and in 1982 Ernie Wilsberg, owner of Mattituck Plumbing and Heating, asked Sacks to drive for him. “So I said, I have a truck, and he said, ‘No I think I’ll buy a new truck,’ ” Sacks recalled. “And then I said we could run a shop out of my garage and he said, ‘No, I think I’ll build a new shop.’ And then he said, ‘What kind of car do you want?’ ”

Sacks said Wilsberg and his son, Jamie, went all-out to give Sacks whatever he needed to win. “It was like a Christmas wish come true.”

Sacks picked up his new car three days before the World Series of Asphalt Racing series in New Smyrna, Fla. Sacks won the eight-night series, winning each of the first three races and six overall, placing second and fourth as well.

“That was indicative of how that season was going to go,” said Sacks, who had a phenomenal year, winning 28 of 38 starts, including two 11-race winning streaks. He won 15 races and took the track championship at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut.

“It was an unbelievable time in my life where everything fell into place,” Sacks said.

In 1983, Sacks decided to move south and run in the Grand National Series. His father, Arnie, asked, “Why not Winston Cup?”

“I couldn’t afford to run Winston Cup,” Sacks said. “Dad’s response was, everything else we do, we do as a family. Let’s do it together.”

So they started Sacks Motor Sports and Sacks moved to North Carolina, flying home to Long Island to run the family business during the week while racing on the weekends. His brother Harry ran the racing shop. Sacks ran five races that year, making his debut at the Pepsi 400. He ran a full schedule in 1984 and finished 19th in points, and was the runner-up for Rookie of the Year behind Rusty Wallace.

GETTY IMAGES | Greg Sacks enjoys what would be his only career NASCAR Cup victory following the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 4, 1985.

In 1985, Sacks finished sixth at the Daytona 500, and when he returned to the track in July for the Firecracker 400, he was unsponsored. Bill Gardner of DiGard Motorsports asked Sacks to drive for him, agreeing to lease Sacks’ Chevrolet if he would run it as a research and development car.

“We had the equipment and the car was very fast,” Sacks said. “Robert Yates, the engine builder, told me he could tell by the color of the pistons that I rode the car hard and in the gas.”

Sacks started in ninth position. Since he was driving an R&D car, he wasn’t expected to finish, but he was running so well, he stayed in the race. Sacks credited crew chief Gary Nelson for keeping him in the right frame of mind as he moved up as high as fourth place. “He told me on the radio, ‘You’ve got the best seat in the house, just enjoy the show.’ ”

Sacks had a makeshift pit crew and his pit stops weren’t great — except for the final one. Volunteers from other crews of cars who were out of the running came to help Sacks exit that final stop in second place. At this point, Nelson came on the radio and said, “O.K., Greg, show us what you’ve got.”

Sacks beat pole-sitter Bill Elliot, who had not only won the Daytona 500 earlier in the year, but had led the Firecracker 400 for 103 of the event’s 160 laps.

Childress was one of the first to congratulate him. “The whole pit row was clapping,” Sacks said. “It was really amazing.”

Later that summer, Sacks returned to a hero’s welcome at Riverhead Raceway, his first time back at the quarter-mile oval since 1976. “It was incredible the reception I got from the fans,” he said.

Sacks had five top-10 finishes in 1985 and continued to race in Winston Cup through 1998. He won the Hummingbird Fishfinder 500 Busch Series race at Talladega in 1996, and was away for a couple of years before returning to driving in 2004.

Sacks noted that Grand Touring Vodka came about while searching for a sponsor for a new racing team. Sacks and his son, Paul, had a meeting with what he described as a “large Russian vodka company.” The company changed hands and no longer wanted to be involved in racing, but that initial meeting prompted Sacks and his family to come up with a business plan for a company of their own.

Over the next 3 ½ years, Sacks said, they developed a formula, and formed an investment group that included Graham Barnett and fellow East Enders Buzz Chew, Bill Goggins, and Bill and Scott Osler. Grand Touring Vodka sold its first case in 2010 and is now sold in 34 states, and Sacks said his focus now is on developing and expanding the company while staying close to racing.

“I had always felt that I would get involved in team ownership,” he said.

Sacks is also happy that his family has stayed close. All three children, including daughter Rachel, have successful business careers and want to help him with his new venture.

It’s no surprise to Sacks.

“That’s just the way I was brought up,” he said. “We do things as a family.”