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A sly mechanical genius whose reputation as one of the premier mechanics in NASCAR hasn't diminished over the years, Smokey Yunick was the "Best Damn Race Car Mechanic" who worked out of the "Best Damn Garage In Town," in Daytona Beach, Fla.
His expertise helped shape the careers of several drivers, among them champion Herb Thomas, who won the Winston Cup title in 1951 and again in 1953 and the great "Fireball Roberts."
Yunick was born on May 25, 1923, "somewhere around" Maryville, Tenn. When he was 16, he tried his hand at motorcycle racing. The affair was short-lived but he did earn his nickname from it by piloting a cycle that had a habit of pouring out engine smoke. A fellow competitor who had trouble remembering Yunick's given name of Henry simply called him "Smokey."
Yunick became a member of the Army Air Corps during World War II and once, while in the air, he admired the view of Daytona Beach and decided to live there. He moved to the city in 1946.
He opened his garage in 1947, the same year he began working on race cars. He worked with Marshall Teague, who assigned Yunick the responsibility of preparing a Hudson Hornet for Thomas for the second Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Thomas won the race and went on to enjoy several successful seasons with Yunick, who soon became the car owner.
Yunick raced Chevrolets for a couple of seasons (1955-56) and then hooked up with veteran Paul Goldsmith and Ford in 1957-58. Together, they switched to Pontiac and stayed with the car through 1962, taking on Roberts and Marvin Panch as drivers, among others. Yunick's cars won four of the first eight major stock car races at Daytona International Speedway, starting in 1959. Roberts won three of them. In 1963, Roberts won the pole in a Yunick Pontiac, but lost the race to Tiny Lund in a Ford when the engine blew with 13 laps to go, finishing 21st.
Afterward, Yunick continued to field stock cars from 1963-68, with the likes of such greats as Banjo Matthews, Bobby Isaac, Darel Dieringer and others driving for him. From 1958 through 1975, Yunick made 10 trips to the Indianapolis 500, with Jerry Karl his driver in his last effort.
Yunick's ability as a mechanic not only produced winning cars and drivers, it helped bring innovation to technology. Stories about his "sleight of hand" in car preparation abound, but he maintains their telling over the years has embellished them significantly.
The fact remains, however, the man from "The Best Damn Garage In Town" knew racing. And he gave to it far more than he took.
Who Was Smokey?
Patents & Inventions
Variable Ratio Power Steering
From Hot Rod Magazine, long article, but worth the reading
The History of...
By the early ’30s, Daytona’s ever-shifting sands and course-altering tides caused the Americans and Brits to shift their LSR attempts to the Bonneville Salt Flats, but that didn’t end Daytona’s beach-racing. In 1936, the city fathers promoted a vacuum-filling stock car race by developing a circle track south of town comprised of both the beach and a parallel access road. Two years later (1938), Bill France and Charlie Reese took over the beach/road races and ran them until the war broke out.
With the end of hostilities, France resumed promoting Daytona’s unique beach-road race in 1946. One year later, two events occurred that would forever change the face of circle track racing. First, Smokey came to Daytona to open a truck repair shop because, he said, it looked so good from the air. Meanwhile, Bill France saw that stock car racing—for all of its good-ol’-boy, booze-running roots—was fast becoming a popular spectator sport. France determined that, with a little organization, promoting southern-style stockers could prove to be a lucrative undertaking. So he took the initiative and founded the National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing: NASCAR. The guy who survived all those air missions over Eastern Europe and the Pacific was quickly caught up in this other form of survival soon after he opened his Best Damn Garage In Town and began a second life that still defies description. You might say that Smokey’s career began the instant after a kindred soul by the name of Marshall Teague walked into his garage. Teague, a well-known stock car driver and car owner, happened to be a Daytona Beach resident, too. He took Smokey’s slogan seriously and invited him to join his team even though Yunick told him he knew nothing about stock car racing. However, the eclectic garage owner knew where to gain an insight. He began studying the chemistry and physics books that he had collected during the war to find out how Mother Nature worked. The information he gleaned from his collection helped him discover the easiest way to make a car go through the air or how long a racing engine would run before it, in his words, “blowed.”
But the book that Yunick studied most was the one containing NASCAR’s new rules. In a piece entitled “Inside Smokey’s Bag of Tricks,” C.J. Baker quoted Smoke thusly: “You have to understand that when I got into this thing back in ’47, they didn’t have near as many rules as they do now. You could run whatever you thought you could get away under what NASCAR would call ‘being within the spirit of competition.’” This happened during what Smokey would later call his drinking days. Baker remembers Smokey telling him that people would come by the race shop for a few drinks, and the next thing he knew his competition was sniveling to France. “If you did something they (NASCAR) didn’t like, which was pretty much up to Bill France, they would fine you or throw you out of the race as ‘being outside the spirit of competition,’ even though there was no specific rule against the supposed infraction.”
Teague’s cars of choice were the new step-down Hudson Hornets—based on inverted-bathtub styling powered by an inline flathead six. The Hornet’s low center of gravity and dual carburetion and other special 7-X “export” items made it fast for its era. And with Smokey at the wrench, the combo rendered Teague hard to beat. Yunick was either a crafty, devious, underhanded, rule-bending, no-good, cheating SOB (one view), or a master of ability, hard work, careful preparation, common sense, and the scientific approach (the other). Smokey’s M.O. was simple: If the rulebook didn’t specifically outlaw this or that, then it was OK to do this or that. No porting or polishing was allowed, so he would paint the ports with hard lacquer and sand them to a mirror finish. Or he would pump an abrasive slurry through the intake manifold runners to remove the lumps and bumps. NASCAR said no boring or stroking, but there was no rule against offset cranks. There was a rule against using lightweight flywheels, but there wasn’t a rule that prohibited removing the ring gear, laterally drilling lightening holes in the flywheel, then reinstalling the ring gear. “All those other guys were cheatin’ ten times worse than us,” remembered Yunick, “so it was just self-defense.”
During the early to mid ’50s, Hot Rod ’s editorial package took on a wider scope. Our traditional lakes, dirt track, and salt-flats racing was now being augmented by professional circle track coverage. By 1955, Wally Parks, Tom Medley, Ray Brock, Bob D’Olivo, and Eric Rickman began to attend, photograph, and cover circle track’s two major events: the Indy 500 and Daytona Speed Week. And with them came Smokey.
Yunick’s parallel lives began in 1955 when Teague and Chevrolet’s Ed Cole—the father of the small-block Chevy V-8—pulled him in two different directions. First, Cole hired him to beef up Chevy’s factory racing program. During his three years under Cole, he helped develop the Black Widow, sorted out its Rochester fuel injection, and hired Paul Goldsmith (a champion motorcycle racer) to drive both his stock cars and his first Indy roadster. A couple of months after Cole signed him up for Chevy duty, Teague invited “El Smoko” to hang with him while he drove a car at Indy. Indy’s thin rulebook and white paper car construction enchanted him. He “hung out” for three years before making his first move. In the meantime, Smokey quit Chevrolet after the ’57 Daytona race when his deal with Ed Cole soured, and he quickly entered a brief but warm affair with Ford and team captain Pete DePaolo. Ford got out of stock car racing in 1958, and Smokey’s close relationship with his mentor Bunkie Knudsen and John DeLorean quickly led to a Pontiac program with pole-winning results (1959 to 1962).
For the record, qualifying 40-plus years ago at Daytona was totally unlike what is done today. In keeping with its land-speed heritage, every car had to make a timed, Bonneville-style, top-speed run down Daytona’s famous beach. The fastest got the pole. During a top-speed test session prior to the running of the Daytona Beach race in 1957, Smokey discovered air was building up under the hood, causing the pressure-sensitive Rochester injector to go dead rich. There are two versions of how Smokey cured this problem. Either Goldsmith opened the heater door during the race to vent off the air, or Smoke installed a couple of pressure-relieving ducts in the Bel Air’s toe board. Whatever. Goldy was able to pick up 20 mph and may have won the race if he hadn’t burned a piston with only six laps to go.
Smokey’s switch to Pontiacs didn’t sit too well for the NASCAR establishment after he won the pole at the new Daytona speedway in 1959, 1961, and 1962. Yunick—never one to go along to get along—P.O.’d the Ford and Chrysler factory teams with his pole-sitting privateers. The factories sniveled to France, who was afraid of losing their support, so he had his inspectors give Smokey’s cars the ultimate thrice over. This nitpicking eventually led to Smokey’s lifelong feuds with both the Senior and Junior France.
Although motorsports history has treated Yunick and stock car racing as fraternal twins, he considered the Indy 500 to be his greatest challenge. After a three-year learning curve (1955 to 1957), he had stepped up in 1958 with his own car driven by Goldsmith, who he considered to be his greatest driver. Although they made the 33-car field, Goldy was involved in a multi-car crash and out of the race with 199 laps to go. Yunick returned in 1959 with what he called Smokey’s Reverse Torque Special, driven to a Seventh-Place finish by Indy great Duane Carter. In 1960, Yunick hit a home run. He and Chicky Hiroshima teamed up with driver (and team manager) Jim Rathmann to win it all in the Ken-Paul Special. Of interest is that Rathmann needed more pit help so he hired Bruce Crower and his team after Crower’s Chevy-powered roadster failed to qualify. Smokey would field two more Rathmann-owned and -managed cars and one of his own before he stood the Brickyard on its collective ear.
How? With "The Wing".
In 1964, Yunick showed up at the track with one of the most radical cars ever to enter the 500-mile race. Called the Hurst Floor Shift Special, it featured a catamaran-like layout with the driver placed in a pod adjacent to a second pod containing the engine, front and rear suspension, fuel tank, and radiator. Unfortunately, his driver Bobby Johns—the guy who almost won the Daytona 500 with Smokey’s Pontiac in 1960—had trouble adjusting to the car’s handling characteristics and eventually backed it into the wall during the last day of qualifying.
Smokey’s ongoing troubles with NASCAR over his getting competitive reached its zenith in 1968. Yunick blamed both Ford and Chrysler for putting so much pressure on France that he had his tech inspectors overscrutinize his super- slippery Chevelles. Legend has it that when Smokey’s ’68 Chevelle picked up its sixteenth violation, he got in the car and drove it back to his garage in Daytona with the fuel tank still sitting in the inspection area. His parting shot was, “make it 17.” Two years later, Smokey said adios to NASCAR and was out of stock car racing.
For the next 10 years, Hot Rod and Smokey enjoyed a close working relationship thanks to C.J. Baker and Buick’s Herb Fishel, who loved Winston Cup racing and also had an interest in high-performance street rodding. During the late ’70s, he saw a chance to make the Buick V-6 the ’80s alternative engine to the Mouse motor and hired Smokey to further refine the engine. Baker and Yunick then combined forces to produce a series of articles entitled “Turn of the Century” which chronicled the development of the Buick V-6 using as many heavy-duty OEM parts as possible. The result was a 355-horse V-6 streeter that found itself in a ’78 Roadmaster, which was ultimately taken to Riverside International Raceway and test driven by NASCAR-champ Cale Yarborough.
In 1979, Baker and Yunick teamed up for two other projects. One was a supercharged V-6 that was installed in a Deuce highboy roadster built for former HRM editor Lee Kelley by Total Performance and driven by Baker and you-know-who from Memphis to California. The other project was a 355ci “what-if” alky-burning, Hilborn-injected small-block. The boys at Indy were contemplating a return to normally aspirated engines, and Smokey couldn’t resist building a prototype V-8 using parts for his enormous pile of former racing inventory. The engine produced an easy 675 horses, but USAC’s return to a normally aspirated stock-block formula never materialized. Smokey wrote it off as another “green card” fiasco and went back to working on his controversial hot air engine.
By Don Mallinson, Editor SHO National Owners Group
It was a 7/8 scale Chevelle (I incorrectly called it a Monte Carlo in the original version of this article) created by Smokey that led NASCAR to create the infamous patterns they use on all cars today. Here is an excerpt from an article by Karen Van Allen on SpeedFX.com about that car: (thanks to Bill Staib for alerting me to this information)
Smokey Yunick was a real thorn in NASCAR's side. He was more inventive and just plain good about cheating or "bending" the rules than anyone ever was or will be.
Interesting reading about Smokey's "Hot Air Engine", click on the link below
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