Down Memory Lane ~ Smokey Yunick
Cautionary note~ Language! In the following column, you will find several quotes from the late, great Smokey Yunick that I have left intact for the purpose of journalistic integrity. (How’s that for 50¢ words?) As you’ll see, Smokey’s vocabulary was as colorful as his career. Contained within are words that are not suitable for your 10-year old, so proceed at your own risk and hold your fire. I’m only the messenger.
[This article first appeared in August of 2003 on the pages of Insider Racing News]
Have you ever answered one of those infernal magazine or Internet quizzes that ask you all sorts of probing questions? I think we probably all have. One of those questions is quite likely to be “If you could have a conversation with one person, living or dead, who would it be?” Most folks reply to that with answers such as “George Washington” or “Jesus” or some great entertainer or world leader. Well, I was a race fan long before I was a wife or mother or grandmother, and the person I think I most regret never having met is Henry “Smokey” Yunick.
I can already see heads shaking and hear some asking, “Who is that?” Well, walk with me down the lane for a bit and I’ll try to tell you all about Smokey, although there really is not enough room on this page to do him justice. To put it concisely, he was quite simply the best auto mechanic that ever held a wrench, and had a mind that was probably right on a par with Albert Einstein. That’s not only my opinion, gentle readers. If you ask anyone in the NASCAR garage or the Indy garage, you’ll hear the same.
H.A. “Humpy Wheeler” of Lowe’s Motor Speedway fame once said of Smokey, "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 (Fireball) Roberts, (Herb) Thomas, Jim Rathmann, (Paul) Goldsmith and (Curtis) Turner."
That is quite a surprising claim when you stop to think that we are talking of a man who didn’t even actually own his own name. Smokey was raised in an orphanage near Philadelphia, and the name Yunick was given to him there.
(That part of the story was later questioned because of a different story that appeared as part of his book, “Best Damn Garage in Town. (The World According to Smokey)” The source for the orphan story was an old edition of Circle Track Magazine, where it appeared in an article… also written by Smokey. That’s just who he was… not perfect, but so very, very intelligent.)
He gained the name Smokey while driving his Indian motorcycle during a race at Langhorne Speedway. The announcer didn't know his name, but his big Indian was putting out a lot of smoke, so he just called him, "Smokey,” and it stuck with him for life.
He never acquired much formal education either; stopping midway through high school, but there is more than one means of becoming educated. Smokey himself once said, "Some of the best books in the world can be bought for a quarter.” He not only bought them but also read and understood every word on every page of books dedicated to sciences far above the ken of most of us.
During World War II, Smokey was a B-17 bomber commander and flew 52 missions over Europe, Africa and the Pacific Theater. He was wounded once, and was shot down over Poland on another mission. While ferrying planes between Miami and New Jersey, the young pilot was fascinated by an area he flew over repeatedly. That area was Daytona Beach, Florida, and once back home in New Jersey after the war, he decided that was where he wanted to settle. Never being one to waver, Smokey packed up his belongings and headed South in 1946.
In those days, the biggest industry in Daytona Beach was auto racing, so that was where Smokey concentrated his efforts. Within a year, he had opened Smokey’s Automotive, and had hung a sign outside, proclaiming it to be “The Best Damn Garage in Town.” Smokey said that he registered that name, so that no one else could claim to be what he knew he was.
When Big Bill France began tossing out the idea of forming a sanctioning body for stock car racing, Smokey was right there. As he put it, “I started in NASCAR from day one.” He was both a car owner and a mechanic back then, and sometimes both. His early drivers included Marshall Teague and the late, great Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, along with Herb Thomas, Banjo Matthews and Curtis Turner.
With Yunick preparing the cars, Herb Thomas won NASCAR Grand National (The forerunner of Winston Cup) championships in 1951 and 1953, in addition to finishing runner-up twice. Together that pair won 39 races over four years. Another notable success for Smokey was capturing four of the first eight stock car races held at Daytona, three of which featured Fireball Roberts as the driver of that now-famous black and gold car. In 1960, he was the chief mechanic on Jim Rathmann’s winning car in the Indianapolis 500.
The list of men who drove Smokey's racecars over the years is a veritable Who's Who of American Racing. In addition to the names already mentioned, you can add A.J. Foyt, Bobby Allison, Mario Andretti, Tony Bettenhausen, Junior Johnson, Gordon Johncock, Lloyd Ruby, Johnny Rutherford, Mickey Thompson, Paul Goldsmith, Billy Vukovich, Jr., Bobby Isaac, and many others. From that list, it becomes obvious that he spread his talents and knowledge throughout several racing venues.
Over the years, several of those venues showed their appreciation of his many contributions to racing and safety issues. Smokey was honored by the Indiana Section of the Society of Automotive Engineers with its Louis Schwitzer Award for Engineering Innovation and Excellence in 1973, for his development of the stock-block Chevy engine at the Indy 500. In 1984, the National Motorsports Press Association inducted him into its Hall of Fame at Darlington (SC) Raceway, and six years later, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega (AL) Superspeedway.
Most folks are quite familiar with the Chevy “small block” V-8 engine that was introduced in 1955 and is still in use today. That was Smokey’s design and creation, and it remains a lasting tribute to him.
Much of what Smokey did when NASCAR was in its infancy was subjected to suspicion and scrutiny, with claims of cheating directed at him for all sides. Smokey described it as being innovative.
According to Smokey, “If you go back to 1950, you had the whole goddamn car to so-called be creative with. All right, now we've had 50 years of racing, 50 years of refining it, which are the collective efforts of all the smart people in the United States, and now the things that I would get disqualified for cheating are absolutely legal today.” Continuing along that train of thought he said, "Ninety percent of the so-called cheating that was innovated, it wasn't cheating," He gave the example of a Chevrolet he entered at the Daytona 500 in 1968. "There was no rule on how big the gas line could be. Everyone else ran a 5/8-inch gas line. That was adequate to supply the race engine with gas, no question about it. I chose to run a two-inch gas line, which was obviously much too big, but it was 11 feet long and it held five gallons of gas. Nobody ever specified size. A week after the race, the gas line couldn't be over a half-inch in diameter. The day that I did it, it was not illegal. That's how most all these innovations - so-called cheating - was not cheating the day it was done."
Of course, having told you that, it’s only fair that I give you the other side of the coin and tell you what Smokey said in later years. He claimed to have run an illegal supercharger for several years in the late 1950s, one of his most successful periods as a racer. "As far as cheating goes, they'll never stop it. There will always be some guy that'll think of something that's a little smarter than the average cat, but the reason there ain't any more of it on a big scale is that the only way it can be done successfully, only one person can know about it. And if there's only one person to know about it, like I was running supercharged Pontiacs and nobody knew about it. Nobody who worked for me knew it, had no idea that the engine was supercharged.” That conversation went on to say that he just got too tired, staying up all night to work when no one else was around. Whether the story of the supercharged engine was true or fancy, I’ll leave up to you. Smokey was not above telling some good stories that sometimes conflicted with each other.
When it came to aerodynamics, Yunick was far ahead of his time. "Smokey was so far ahead of all of us in the aerodynamic downforce part of it. He could take a car and cut it all to pieces and work on it," said Bud Moore. "There's no way we could have done some of the stuff he did."
"Smokey was real good. He did all kinds of stuff. He was smart," agreed David Pearson. "He had a little spoiler put on top of it [his car] to keep air from getting down on it. You could see it, but you had to look at it close. It was back there at the rear window on the roof."
Recently deceased NASCAR historian, Bob Latford, once said of Smokey, "Some of the great [aerodynamic] innovations in those regards came from Smokey. Smokey was ... running about a 15/16-scale car, just downsized so it made a smaller hole through the wind and therefore would be quicker. He used to take a half-inch out here and a quarter-inch out there and the car looks about the same until it's parked right next to another one that's actual [size]."
As good as he had become at the science of “seeing the air” Smokey regretted that he hadn’t figured that out years sooner than he did. "I didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground about handling. I concentrated on horsepower, horsepower, horsepower! I won 58 races in NASCAR, but I would have won a lot more if it hadn't taken me until 1960 to realize there was more to racing than horsepower. We usually had the fastest car, but in those early days, we were probably 10 years ahead of the tires and I would wake up many a time after dreaming about the two booms - first the tire and then the car into the wall. It took me until '67 to do something about it," he added, "And I only lasted three more years before I got mad with France and quit. So about the time I learned something about a chassis, I wasn't there anymore."
That quote refers to the fact that after a quarrel with Big Bill France (Those two had never seen eye to eye on most things) at the 1971 Daytona 500, Smokey essentially retired from NASCAR racing. I say essentially, because he kept right on coming to the races, but he never again competed as a mechanic or as a car owner and the two rarely if ever spoke until France’s death in 1992. In Smokey’s own words, "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 ..." As caustic as that sounds (And Smokey was always that way. You always knew where you stood at least), I’m sure that somewhere there is a quote of equal acidity by Bill France about Smokey Yunick.
Smokey became a bit obsessed with “the two booms” and drivers dying as what he saw as unnecessarily. Sometime after 1964, which is often referred to as the worst year in motorsports (because so many died in crashes that year), he turned his many talents toward racing safety and worked diligently over the years to make things better for “his” drivers. You see, in his mind they were all his drivers, no matter in what venue they raced or in what country for that matter. The man you saw at the track wearing a white flat-topped cowboy hat and a white jacket with a blue oval on the back (Best Damn Garage in Town) was actually a mother hen, worrying about the safety of the chicks. He felt responsible because he had developed so much of the technology that made the cars go faster, "But somebody," he said, "needs to save the poor, dumb bastards from themselves."
In the early 90’s with the Brickyard 400 about to be added to the schedule at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Smokey was invited to inspect the new concrete wall that had been erected in anticipation of the much heavier stock cars. Smokey’s comment on that was, “What about the drivers? All you’re gonna do with this is kill ‘em deader, quicker.”
That motivated Smokey to go to work on creating a moveable soft barrier. It would soften the blows of crashes; it would move on impact, so it wouldn't "snag" or "catch" the cars. (Does any of that sound familiar?) In Smokey’s version though, there was a self-replenishing supply of the core material, used racing tires, bound tightly together in stacks, with thin steel rods. That barrier was ignored as “unnecessary” by the entire racing world until the death of Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500. Shortly before that fatal race, an ill and dying Smokey Yunick said of his neglected invention, “Guess nobody’s interested.” Remember, his version of the barrier was created in the early 90’s. I wonder how the pages of history might have been changed if someone had been interested…
As he had all of his life, in his later days Smokey Yunick had opinions and was not loath to share them. On latter-day NASCAR racing, he opined that it should not be called racing. “Between 1947 and the year 2000, we had racing and then something that came after it - whatever name you want to put on it," he said. "I am not criticizing it. This is by far several hundred times more successful than we were, but, if I was a racer, then these guys competing today aren't. And if these guys are racers, then I never was.”
"That doesn't mean I consider that we were better, nor do I consider them better than us. The fact is this doesn't resemble what we had, what we started out with. It doesn't mean it is bad. It is now operating as entertainment and has nothing to do with the sport. When we started, my pleasure was, the reason I did it, was I'd like to step out on the line Sunday morning and pull my pants up and say, 'Let's have a race.' If I won, I was happy. And if I didn't, I was already thinking about what I was going to change next week to beat their ass.”
At another time, he offered yet another thought on the modernization of stock car racing. “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 good 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.”
On “cheating”, which he was so often accused of himself, he said, "They will find out there is no way to police creativity. No way in hell! There's always some guy who comes along like Ray Evernham that's smarter than the average cat, and he's going to figure out a way to get around it. The difference between Gary Nelson's ability to think and Ray Evernham's - well, probably there's not a lot of difference in their IQs, but Evernham concentrates on engines and certain areas with a lot of expensive, very educated help. For 60 hours a week, he's studying new stuff to beat the rules. Gary Nelson is spending 50 hours a week trying to enforce the rules that were made yesterday. They're not even in the same game."
That, gentle readers, was Smokey Yunick, for better or worse. He was eccentric, he was profane and he was the ultimate curmudgeon. With all that put aside, he was brilliant! He was a genius! He did more for the sport of auto racing than any other single man in the history of the sport did.
His last years were not kind to Smokey. He suffered from various illnesses including bone cancer and leukemia. Nearing the end of his life, he turned up unannounced at Charlotte (Lowe’s) and had this to say:
"I've had a lot of trouble the past year. I've had everything diagnosed except pregnancy. I think they don't really know what's wrong with me. I've been treated for bone cancer, everything you could think of. Finally, about a month ago, I took all the medicine there was and threw it in the trash can. I told the doctor, 'I'm done with this shit.' If I'm going to die, I'm going to die. Don't even talk to me about it anymore.'"
"I picked up horsepower, about 70 percent. I feel 100 percent better. I came away from wheelchairs, those things you push, canes. Now I'm walking by myself - all that in 20 days. I just went up and down. I didn't know what was happening. I was so weak I couldn't do nothing. I really didn't want to live because I couldn't do nothing. I'm starting to get back in the ballgame. I may be going to drop dead because I won't take the medicine, but I ain't taking no more. If I'm going to die, let's get it over with. I'm headed for 78 now, and I've had enough of everything, with no regrets. I had a good life."
Well, gentle readers, that life ended on May 9, 2001, less than three months after we said “good-bye” to Dale Earnhardt. Again, one might wonder if there was a connection. Did the best mechanic finally give up when the best driver was taken too soon? Was that final contact with the concrete too much to bear for the man who’d had a way to make it better leaning against a wall in his garage for ten years? We’ll never know the answer to those moot questions. Both are gone, so who is left to answer?
I’ll leave the final epitaph to Championship winning crew chief (1989) Barry Dodson, who said of Smokey Yunick, “"I think he was years ahead of his time in some of the aerodynamic things. One of the Chevelles he had is up in Richard Childress' museum now, and every time I go over there, I take time to look at that car. I think how could anybody have that mind and that ingenuity 20 years before anybody else, before we had the use of the wind tunnels and all the data that we have from the manufacturers? He was way, way ahead of his time."
Have I made it clear why Smokey Yunick would be my answer to the quizzical question? I promise you that I would happily have sat for hours at the feet of the master, just for the privilege of hearing him speak. To be in the presence of true genius is an awesome thing and I know I would have found it with Smokey Yunick. I truly envy those who did.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down Memory Lane. I hope that I’ve brought back a few pleasant recollections and perhaps a smile or two to those of you nearer my age. To my younger readers and the newer fans, I’m happy that you decided to take the trip with us. Stock car racing has a rich and colorful history and it would be a shame for all of it to be left in dusty books on a library shelf. Please, keep reading about it. Read anything and everything you can find. I promise that you’ll enjoy seeing some of the wonderful folks who built this sport come alive on the pages.
With all due respect to Smokey Yunick, the racer, the mechanic, the inventor, the genius and most of all, the man, I’ll close with Smokey’s life-long motto, “All right you sons of bitches, let’s have a race!”
April 28th of 2011 wrote the final chapter of Smokey’s story. Though at some time after his death there had been an auction, which cleared out much of what remained in his “Best Damn Garage in Town”, it had remained a tourist attraction for race fans who still thrilled just to drive by and see the almost empty building. On that night, fire broke out in the old shop and it was completely destroyed… including that sample section of wall that still leaned against the inside wall… unused because “No one was interested.”
Dear gentle readers, I know this has been a long read, but I sincerely hope you made it to the end and enjoyed every word. In anticipation of the length of this article, I asked Smokey’s daughter Trish what might have been his favorite Country song. This was her answer:
“He didn't listen to music much but when he did it was Country. He wanted to have Marty Robbins lead him out to the Indy grid playing "Wabash Cannonball". We used it for the recessional at his funeral. Seems like that would fit well to me.”
Seems so to me as well. Here then, to closeout our time together this week is Marty Robbins with his version of “Wabash Cannonball.”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!
Roll the credits!
Many thanks to the following people
(Along with several whose work was unsigned) whose excellent writings allowed
me to amass the quotes used in this article: Tom Jensen