in the 1920s. That’s when his great-grandfather, accompanied by his best friend, moved
from Russia to Michigan. (That friend, Alexander Gecko, is Alex’s namesake.) Even then,
Vakulas made their living at ground level.
He says, “They literally dug the basements
for the skyscrapers and the hotels in down-
town Detroit.” Eventually, the men saved up
enough money to buy a farm. “Then they
sent back to Russia for the families, and that
was the farm I grew up on.”
That was in Lapeer, Michigan, a small city
about 60 miles north of Detroit. It sits on
the now-notorious Flint River, and though
it’s the county seat, it’s never been a large
town. In the 1970s, its population was about
6,000 people. Maybe that’s why entrepre-
neurs could more easily start a new busi-
ness—even a unique one.
The Vakulas had been longtime farmers,
but when Alex’s father and uncle decided to
make a change, they became butchers,
eventually owning three shops in Michigan.
But even while they found success in that
field, their gaze settled on the now-unused
fields outside the family home. That’s when
they envisioned the crop furrows flattened
and paved into a dragstrip. The immigrant
family—and motor sports—were about to
be transformed again.
Still operating today, the Lapeer Dragway
is a quarter-mile asphalt track that has showcased the driving talents of the greats and
not-so-greats ever since the two men built it
Vakula says, “So we had a raceway in our
backyard, and Sundays we’d have the top
dragsters come out. It was a great experience
growing up. We just had a blast.”
It may be safe to say that Alex Vakula—
and his brother Nick—may be the only two
Arizona lawyers whose family has been in-
ducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall
of Fame. The 2012 honor recognized the
impact of that unique family business. And
that high-horsepower line of work played a
role in the sons’ choice of careers—in an odd
Asked whether a family dragstrip sinks
deep into a son’s career DNA, the successful
lawyer smiles. Turns out, the answer is yes,
but not as you might expect.
“My dad got sued twice, and he was
terrified.” A high-stakes profession brought
legal issues to the family’s doorstep.
In the first case, a driver died when his
car rolled. Sued in the late 1960s on a claim
that the track was flawed, his dad and uncle
hired an attorney. By incredible good fortune, early technology helped the family
“It just so happened that someone was
filming, which back in that day was pretty
The video showed that the driver’s vision
was obscured by oil that shot out when his
engine’s oil-cap came off. He could be seen
wiping the oil off his goggles when he tragi-
cally rolled his car.
Vakula says, “It would have been a lot
scarier if we didn’t have that video”—and a
A second lawsuit was a products liability
matter regarding the butcher business. His
dad and uncle had sold a meat grinder with
which a worker was eventually injured. Codefendants with the grinder manufacturer,
the family—who ultimately prevailed—spent
more time with lawyers in Michigan courtrooms.
“I saw a pretty good trial when I was in
fifth or sixth grade,” the 56-year-old Vakula
recalls—which is how he and his brother began thinking about law.
“My dad always had a deep respect for his
lawyer. I remember I would leave his shop—
it was kind of like Prescott, right in the
square—we’d be leaving his shop at 5:00 or
6:00 at night, and look up there and the
light in his lawyer’s office was still on. He
was always very impressed with his lawyer’s
work ethic. So he always had a high regard
Taking hard-earned lessons from his fam-
ily’s experience, Vakula urges young lawyers
to learn more about the business side of the
“As one of my old partners used to say, if
you can’t keep the lights on, you can’t help
BY TIM EIGO
PHOTOS BY MARK SKALNY
When summer comes to Arizona,
the inevitable aroma of forest fires creates
apprehension, and since 2013 it also carries
with it an added sense of dread. For it was in
that year that 19 firefighters were trapped by
the Yarnell Hill Fire and perished in a small
valley where they had taken shelter. Throughout the state and the nation, people mourned the tragedy.
In Northern Arizona, though, the events
inevitably took on a far more personal cast.
Many people in the beautiful mountain communities knew someone who died, or knew
someone who knew someone. And even for
those residents who were farther removed,
many had family or friends who fought fires.
And everyone recognized the courage of
those who placed themselves between raging
flames and the thousands of souls who lived
alongside sometimes vengeful wilderness. In
June 2013, that courage was made manifest.
So widespread was the grief that about $8
million was donated on behalf of the surviving families. But like the misfortune that
necessitated it, the donations turned the
conversation from white-hot inferno to decidedly cooler topics—like division, distribution, and legal and tax consequences. All
would have to be resolved before families
could be assisted.
That need led firefighters associations in
Prescott and Phoenix to create a board to
oversee the relief fund.
Alex Vakula, a Prescott attorney, was
appointed one of the board’s three advisory
members. He says he was privileged to provide insight and assistance to the Granite
Mountain 19 Distribution Advisory Committee—and remains in awe of the Hotshots
who lost their lives.
But how did a Michigan boy make his
way west and end up in a rural community
where he is a respected attorney and trusted
community counselor—and the new President of the State Bar of Arizona? His path to
Prescott may have launched on a literal starting line—on a backyard dragstrip.
Vakula is proud of his family’s immigrant
history, and their American chapter began