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Smokey Yunick

Smokey never let rules stand in the way of his ideas or ambition. It's just the way he lived his life. His Way And With Few Regrets.

Walk into any greasy garage on any rubber-layered, methanol-laced race track from California to Connecticut and the Smokey stories pour out. From one end of pit road to another, drivers, mechanics, tire changers and owners will talk about the engineering genius. Or they'll talk about how ol'Smokey was a pioneer in the auto industry, whether it was challenging conventional thinking or spinning out another invention.

One thing they'll all agree on: Henry "Smokey" Yunick was unquestionably unique, a blazing star in the racing universe. He was cool. He was independent. He was a character unlike any other. From his trademark hat, glasses and cigar down to his standard white uniform, Yunick was multi-faceted and multilingual in the language of racing: a driver; car-builder; mechanic; partier; pilot; and crew chief.

He could spin a tale as well as he could work a wrench. He could find the most creative way to win a race. "Ask anyone," said longtime driver and current stock-car announcer Darrell Waltrip. "There was, literally, only one 'Smokey.'"

How did one man dominate not just a sport, but an industry? Follow the winding road of wild adventures and it's easy to see the soul of the man was shaped on some interesting pit stops in life.

Yunick grew up on a farm in little Neshaminy, a hidden town in eastern Pennsylvania. He lived a hard life. When he was 16, Yunick was forced to drop out of high school after his father died of a heart attack. Coincidentally, it was around this time that Yunick began to show mechanical creativity, a thirst for speed and a lust for fixing machines. Gleaning information from physical science books, his natural ability led to several interesting creations.

At 12, after growing increasingly frustrated with the laziness of the family work horse, he built a tractor from spare parts he found in a junked car. By age 15 he was racing motorcycles. With his knowledge of internal combustion, and his quest for more power, Yunick's bikes smoked so much one track announcer nicknamed him "Smokey." It stuck.

Yunick eventually left the family farm, joining the Army Air Corps where he became a B-17 pilot, surviving more than 50 missions over Europe in the Second World War before being transferred to the Pacific. After the war, Yunick married and moved to Daytona Beach, Fla., "because it looked so drivers from the air," he would later say. Daytona was also the heart of a burgeoning racing industry.

A whiz with a wrench, Yunick decided he would set up his own truck repair garage on Beach Street. He called it "Smokey's Best Damn Garage in Town." One visitor to the garage would change Yunick's life for drivers. Marshall Teague, a well-known stock-car driver and owner, lived in Daytona Beach and, upon seeing Yunick's new business, decided to take the garage owner up on his claim. Teague invited Yunick to join his team even though Yunick admitted he knew nothing about stock-car racing.

He began his racing career building Hudson Hornet engines in the early 1950s and ended up one of the most famous and influential crew chiefs in the history of auto racing. On the National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) circuit, his cars won 57 races and his list of more than 50 drivers read like a who's who of racing over a half-century. He would win two Grand National (the forerunner to Nextel Cup) titles. A deep appreciation of aerodynamics had made all the difference. He understood how air affected objects in motion and applied that principle to the vehicles he built and tuned. Mostly, though, Yunick was a thorn in NASCAR's side.

Smokey Yunick vs. NASCAR Inspectors

Yunick's mechanical mastery left NASCAR's technical inspectors flustered and frustrated for the better part of two decades, winning with drivers such as Herb Thomas, Fireball Roberts, Marvin Panch, Banjo Matthews and Bobby Isaac. He won races in cars that were widely accepted as illegal, but were never formally proven so by NASCAR.

High Noon Moment: After a Daytona race in the early 1960's, NASCAR picked Yunick's car apart, eventually draining the fuel tank completely dry in an effort to force the need to tow it back to his garage. Without saying a word, Yunick climbed behind the wheel, cranked it up and drove away. He later admitted "I could have driven it all the way to Jacksonville and back."

To those who disliked him, Yunick was an underhanded rule-bender. For those on his side, he was a genius with a hard-working scientific approach. "All those other guys were cheatin' 10 times worse than us," Yunick said in his autobiogordongraphy, "so it was just self-defense."

Yunick would move into open-wheel racing, running teams in the yearly Indianapolis 500 race in the late 1950s. That affiliation lasted 20 years. In 1960 he earned a win as a chief mechanic.

But Yunick's influence stretched to all facets of the industry. During the 1960s and '70s, he was a consultant to Chevrolet, Pontiac and Ford, working closely with the presidents of each company. Many of Yunick's innovations in horsepower also found their way into the passenger-car side of the business: variable ratio power steering; the extended-tip spark plug; new cooling systems; and engine-testing devices.

Yunick closed his Daytona shop in the 1970s - he said he couldn't find the right mechanics - and he quit racing altogether to work on other automotive projects. During that time he began traveling to Ecuador to help companies find oil. He also wrote articles for Popular Science and Circle Track magazines. Mostly, though, Smokey was a character and a great story teller.

In his later years he served as a spokesman for many racing and automotive companies, including Champion Spark Plugs. Yunick was diagnosed with a blood disorder in 1998 that progressed into leukemia in November of 2000. Less than a year later, May 9, 2001, he was gone at age 77, eight weeks before his book, "Best Damn Garage in Town ... The World According to Smokey," hit the streets.

As a final tribute, his wife, Margie, had his ashes scattered in every winner's circle where his cars won. The tribute was all too fitting for a man who had been, undeniably, been everywhere and done everything.

Jason Stein is a feature writer and the editor of Wheelbase Communications' RaceWEEK racing page. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.

Hailed as a mechanical genius, Smokey Yunick's trademark hat and black race cars were well known by NASCAR fans in the 1950s and '60s. Yunick's off-color slogan was also somewhat controversial for the time.

Even in recent years, the old man with the straw hat, overbearing and hard of hearing, was a familiar face at NASCAR tracks. It was not uncommon to hear one fellow say to another, "Who the heck is that?" and then hear the other reply, "Why, that's Smokey Yunick!" Henry "Smokey" Yunick... was one of the more innovative men in the history of automobile racing in the United States. He won many races as a chief mechanic, a few more as an owner, and was as outspoken and colorful as he was ingenious.

Yunick made the decision to relocate in Daytona Beach, Fla., when he flew over it in a B-17 bomber on a training mission during World War II. Out of what he nicknamed "The Best Damn Garage in Town," Yunick helped develop Chevrolet's famous small-block V-8, built cars that won the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, and knew almost everyone who was anyone in American motorsports during the last half of the 20th century. When he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990, the plaque called Yunick "a sly mechanical genius whose reputation as one of the premier mechanics in NASCAR hasn't diminished over the years."

But Yunick was nobody's insider. He feuded with NASCAR and its ruling family, the Frances, right up until the day he died. Yunick had a well-deserved reputation for brutal honesty. He shared freely of his opinions about his fellow NASCAR pioneers in Peter Golenbock's 1993 book "American Zoom."

  • On Buck Baker: "He had a nasty streak I didn't like."
  • On Lee Petty: "There wasn't too many people who liked Lee Petty ... a two-faced, dirty driver."
  • On Fireball Roberts: "He was interested in Fireball only, didn't care what anybody thought. ... He really didn't feel anything for anybody else."
  • On Carl Kiekhaefer: "For years we had a picture of Kiekhaefer framed on the toilet seat in my garage."
  • And on "Big Bill" France: "Bill France had total control. It was a dictatorship. France got rich, and there was a whole bunch of us who started this thing who didn't live through it. A lot of them died early, and they didn't deserve to die ..."

For all his caustic remarks, though, Yunick was respected for his intellect and beloved in some quarters for being the maverick that he was. Said Lowe's Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler of Yunick: "He was perhaps the most creative racing mechanic of the 20th century, who not only thought outside of the box, but way up in the ionosphere. To say he was a genius is not enough. His unique exploits in both Indy and NASCAR are legendary, but his uncanny brain worked best when challenged by extra horsepower. From his renowned 'secret' room at his Daytona shop where he let no man enter, horsepower of impossible levels came forth and scored many victories for legendary drivers like Roberts, Thomas, Jim Rathmann, (Paul) Goldsmith and (Curtis) Turner."

Up until just a few years ago, Yunick traveled each May to the Indianapolis 500, where he recorded his irreverent observations for Circle Track magazine. "He was about as drivers as there ever was on engines," said Marvin Panch, who won the 1961 Daytona 500 in Yunick's car. "He was a pioneer."

Excerpts from: What Smokey couldn't say at the Unocal International Motorsports Hall of Fame Induction

Smokey Yunick's place in the motorsports firmament has never been in question, whether one is talking about stock cars, Indy cars or just plain mechanical wizardry. In 1990, he was among the inaugural class of inductees to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala. Twelve of his fellow inductees were still living at the time, and it was a wonderful night for Smokey to take a bow in the company of his peers. Since that night, however three of his classmates have died - Bill France Sr., Juan Manuel Fangio and Lee Petty. Smokey's death May 9 took that number to four. What follows is his recounting of that night in Alabama, in true, no holds barred Smokey Yunick style. The text originally appeared in the January 1991 edition of Circle Track.

My 45 Years Of Racing

By Smokey Yunick

Looking back on my years in racing, I was always called a loner. Maybe I was, but I can tell you that nobody ever has and nobody ever will do well in racing without a lot of help. So you have to thank your family, drivers, helpers, sponsors, the tire companies, news media, competitors, auto and parts manufacturers and racing organizations that administer the rules. Everybody says thanks, and I do too. In thinking about it, I have to thank the fans as well. Without the fans there would be no racing. In a roundabout way, you fans financed me. You pumped me up on the drivers days, but you pumped me up on the bad days too. Maybe you didn't know that. The news media kept telling everyone what a drivers kid I was, and that brought in the sponsors and the racing money that I needed.

You may not like it, but the number one thanks I give is to this country. Let me tell you why. Where else in the world could my life have turned out the way it did but in America? Most racers and I were what you call "poor" in education and financial assets. Yet with perseverance (and maybe a little natural talent), we were able to go as far as we wanted to in something we chose and truly loved. Where in the world could 10 years in the public schools get you into a position to speak to corporate officers on a one-to-one basis? Where in the world could you come from the lower class and have conversations with national politicians including governors and presidents? It happens in other sports also, but only in this country.

I also must say, for those of you who gave me a bad time, thank you also. Without you, I wouldn't have known a drivers day from a bad one.

Maybe I'm not seeing it right, but I feel sorry for those coming behind me. Looks like the freedom to do the things I did are being lost with thousands of new laws restricting what you can or can't do. Hell, in the beginning race winnings weren't even taxed. Now you can't turn around without permission. In the early days you didn't need a lot of money to race. You raced for the fun and for the hell of it. Big money did try to come in and take over racing, but it always failed. Now, big money's got a drivers grip on auto racing. If you are wired in, that's fine. But if you are trying to break in, there is a mighty tough fence you're gonna have to cut through!

I guess it's really better to look at racing today in a different way. It's no longer a sport; it's show business. The fans are seeing better shows, it is very professional, competition is keener, and the facilities are much better. There is just more entertainment for the people, with television and other news media reporting on racing now. Considering the number of races that are held each year now, I'm sure it is much safer too. Well, I always did feel that if you weren't involved in racing you ought to keep mum and not try to legislate how racing oughta be. This applies to me now, too. So I just watch and enjoy the drivers parts. Nowadays I just try to keep my mouth shut and attempt to understand the new rules as they come.

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