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Gary Zitterich is thankful for every day and he shows it with his dedication to customer service. Gary owns Zitterich Repair; a family run, full service auto repair shop on West Burnside in Sioux Falls. Born and raised in Estherville, Iowa, Gary’s dad worked for the railroad so the family moved around quite a bit. They settled down in Sioux Falls in 1958. Gary graduated from Washington High School in 1969. Gary always had an interest in cars and entered the Plymouth Troubleshooting Contest at his school and won. “The judges ‘bugged’ the cars and we had to ‘debug’ them in a certain amount of time,” recalls Zitterich. Gary went on to the regional contest and took second place. “If we had won it we would have gone to Indianapolis to the Indy 500 for the finals,” says Gary. “However, because of how well we did, I got a job offer from Chrysler to any of their dealerships. I had planned to go to the Air Force and take up electronics but decided to take them up on their offer. At the time there were two dealerships, Duke Tufty (33rd & Minnesota) and Ryan Motors (19th and Minnesota). I loved racing and half of the mechanics that worked at Ryan Motors were into racing and that is what made my decision to work for them over Tufty,” says Gary. Those were the days of the muscle cars like the Hairbender and the Orange Peeler.
“A few years into that job Ryan took on the Datsun franchise. Ryan couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go to school to learn how to work on the new import but I jumped on the opportunity. I was the first Datsun mechanic in the state. Billion Motors bought out Bob Ryan and after turning wrenches for 10 years, I took an offer for UPS. I worked there for two years, working nights. I was promised days but it never happened so I decided it was time to move on again. I went through a divorce at that time and figured I had nothing to lose so I decided to start my own business. I started in my dad’s one stall garage and within a month moved to a four-stall garage and specialized in foreign car repair. In those days nobody wanted to work on them. We worked day and night trying to keep up. We were so busy that one day I took the phone off the hook and three weeks later I put it back on the hook after we caught up. Larry Apland worked for me. He worked at Ryan’s when I did. He had been trucking but was growing tired of that. He heard I started a shop, called me up, and I hired him on the spot. We made a great team because Larry loved doing the heavy work and I liked the electrical and small maintenance work. Life was great. I loved working on cars, I owned my own shop, and I even got paid to do what I loved to do.”
Their original location was a 4-stall garage on north Garfield. The business was called Zitterich Foreign Car Repair and was one of the few foreign repair shops in the area. Most mechanics did not want to deal with foreign cars at the time. They were more than happy to take on all of that business. Over the next years, their customers began purchasing more American cars and unfortunately assumed they did not work on anything but foreign cars so Gary decided to change the name of his business. By this time most shops worked on foreign cars so they lost their niche. They renamed their business Zitterich Motorsports and now work on a wide variety of cars in addition to foreign.
When Gary’s boys were old enough, they would hang around the shop so Gary started them out sweeping the floor. “I wanted them to go to school but before they left for school, I wanted them to see my world as a mechanic. Turned out they all liked being mechanics. As time went on, we decided to make it a family business.”
After outgrowing previous locations, six years ago they moved to their current location on Burnside. “Looking back on it now, if the boys wouldn’t be in the business, I probably would have sold everything and retired at that time. We lost the lease on our previous building when the tenant next to us wanted to expand their business. They were there longer than us so the landlord asked us to leave. Jesse Bawdon worked for them and helped us move. We got to know him well during that time and asked him to go to work for us.”
It is truly a family business now. Gary’s three sons, Mike, Dave, and Justin, all work in the business. “Bigger isn’t always better,” says Dave. “Quality is our key. When it is family and your name is on the sign you go the extra mile.” “As soon as they could hold a wrench, the boys were helping around the garage. We are proud of our work and treat every car like it is our own car,” says Gary with a smile. “It is nice to work with your sons. I am so proud of them. We all have the same philosophy when it comes to customer service. However, we are human and occasionally we make mistakes. But when we make mistakes, we make sure we take care of them. I spell my name Gary not god. It is tough in our business because when you do make a mistake, many people think they were intentionally taken advantage of. I try to put them at ease right away by apologizing and telling them we will take care of it.”
“My dad was a huge race fan,” says Gary. “It was a way of life for us kids. We would be at Huset’s every Sunday at 5 PM. Dad grew up close to Jackson, Minnesota and we would go to Jackson Speedway every Saturday night. No matter where we lived, we always made time to go to the races. That love of racing carried through to my kids. By the time I was old enough to drive a car, I wanted to race at Huset’s but my parents wouldn’t let me. My dad’s best friend was killed in a racecar and they did not want me to do it. They thought drag racing was safer so they let me do that. I also did some motocross motorcycle racing. I never broke any bones but sprained a lot of them. I was 25 years old and they put me in the old man’s group. I said I am not an old man, and they told me most racers do not make it that long so I was an old man to them. I crashed a lot and finally decided I needed four wheels and a roll bar to be safe. I got tired of crashing so I started racing sprint cars in 1981. In 1989, I won the first IMCA (International Motor Contest Association) National Series Title for sprint cars. The season ended in Wichita, Kansas and my parents traveled down to see me win the event. They were nervous to see me race but they were my biggest fans next to my wife, Julie, and kids.” Zitterich had a lot of success in racing; winning a trophy dash at Knoxville World of Outlaws and three track championships: one at Hartford and two at Huset’s and two national series championships. Grandma and Grandpa took them to the races to watch their dad until they were old enough to get in the pit area.
Gary says he has been involved in more crashes than he cares to remember. However, one crash in particular was memorable. It happened July 4, 1988 at Huset’s when he blew up a brand new 410 car. The car caught fire and burned both of his legs and he lost three months of work. “To show you what a fanatic I was about racing, I was back racing two weeks later,” recalls Zitterich. “My legs, arms, and hands were wrapped up. They had to put me in the car and strap me in. All I could do is step on the gas and work the steering wheel.”
According to Dave, “We have more experience, and dedication because we are family. We do not hide behind our sign. Our name is on the line. We do not look at this as a job, it is our life. We take a lot of pride in what we do. Our name is our reputation.” Gary adds, “When you come in my door, you come in as a customer but you will leave as a friend.”
“Pawn Stars reality star Rick says it best when he says the thing I like the most about my job is working with family. The thing I hate most about my job is working with family,” Gary says with a smile. “We are not afraid to challenge each other but at the end of the day we are still family. I am the boss but I am trying to let the boys have a hand in more of the decision-making.”
I always try to spend extra time with our women customers so they fully understand what we did with their vehicle. I want them to understand everything we did and why we did it so they know what they are paying for. An educated customer is a repeat customer. Every woman customer gets a flower from us. We want them to enjoy their visit to our shop. Most women do not like the typical mechanic experience because they feel they may get taken advantage of. We want to educate them. I try to put them at ease.
The competition for the repair dollar is tough today. Zitterich feels their experience and pride set them apart from competitors. “We are technicians but we must also be businessmen. We advertise more than we used to because as we expand, it takes more money to operate so you have to do more business. In the old days, word of mouth and exposure at the racetrack was all we did. After I got burned and quit racing locally, I lost that exposure. I now try to advertise to remind people who know me where I am at and to let people who may not know me, what I do and that I want to earn their business.”
“We do everything but rebuild transmissions and bodywork, from oil changes to major overhauls for all makes and models. We offer both synthetic and regular oil, depending on what the customer wants. We recommend synthetic because we feel the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. We specialize in foreign cars and use state of the art diagnostic equipment. We provide expert troubleshooting, brake repair & service, engines & transmission tune-ups, tire change and alignment, mufflers and complete exhaust systems, heating & air conditioning, as well as brakes and suspension repair and replacement. We tackle jobs other shops do not want. We take pride in the challenge. We have made friends and earned new customers doing this.”
“We believe in preventive maintenance. We just started a new service that provides a print out for a customer with a maintenance schedule. It will tell them of any recalls and when service is required. We also are connected to a network of 100’s of shops around the United States so if we need help to figure out a problem, we can ask other shops for input. We are constantly going to school to stay up on the latest trends in the industry.”
“We specialize in electronic repair and computer diagnostic repair. The cars are becoming more computer operated. Everything is electronic now. You have to have the right test equipment but the equipment is no better than the person operating it. If you are a doctor you have two models male and female. In our business you have 100’s of models and you need to be knowledgeable about all of them. If you do not keep up, you fall behind and lose business.”
“We have three bays with lifts and three bays without a lift. We are open 8-5:30 M-F and Saturday by appointment. We have been known to work seven days a week. If the work is there, we do it and appreciate it. We can give you a ride, we have a loaner car, or you can wait in our lounge. We will also pick up your car for you, work on it and return it for you. Free pick up and delivery.
Gary had a life-changing experience in 2007 when he suffered a near fatal heart attack. “It was August and I was at home when it happened. It was very hot outside but we do not use air conditioning in our house. My wife has had cancer five times and the radiation ruined her immune system. She cannot handle dramatic changes in temperatures so we do not run AC in the house. On that particular day, we had the air conditioning on max because we had company from Texas. I woke up the next morning and stood up and hit the floor immediately. I could not bend over to put my shoes on. The chest pains were tremendous. The temperature was 80 degrees at 7 AM. I opened the door and stepped outside and immediately the pain was gone. I went back in the house and as soon as I got in the air conditioning I went down again. I got ready for work and walked outside again and felt great again. I went to work and at 10 AM I walked across the street to Driveline and as soon as I got in his air-conditioned office it hit me again. When I went outside again I felt great. So by this time I called the doctor. I talked to the nurse and made an appointment. I hung up and 10 minutes later she called me back. In the meantime she grabbed the doctor and explained my symptoms to him. He said you call him back and tell him to get to a hospital immediately. They got me in the ER room but the ER doc couldn’t find anything wrong with me. All of a sudden the monitors flat lined. They gave me a shot of adrenaline but I went to cardiac arrest again. When I came to, the doctor told me I had a heart attack and he told me I had two minutes to talk to my family before I had to go into emergency surgery. Later I was told that 98% of the people that suffer the type of attack I suffered do not make it. It was called the widow maker. As I flat lined, I saw the bright light you may have heard about. It was so bright and you truly move towards the light. I got close enough that I reached out to touch it. Just when I did, I felt a finger on my forehead that pushed me away from the light. When I woke, I was on my way to surgery. I am here by the grace of God and am truly thankful for every day. I credit this nurse with saving my life. If that nurse would not have been curious and done her job above and beyond what was expected, I would not be here today. I remember her every year on the anniversary of the heart attack by presenting a rose for each year since.
“I am living the dream, working with my family and doing what I love to do. Everyone should be this lucky.”