Friday, April 29, 2011

Cheating, Chapter 3, Part 1

The cheating as we used to call it was fun. It was a little bit like outrunning the police with a  V-8. It was fun. It didn't hurt anybody. —Robert Yates
To hear veteran racers tell it, clich├ęd as it sounds, the 1960s really were a simpler time for NASCAR mechanics and crew chiefs. With only a skeletal rule book and inspection process to deal with, car builders were given wide latitude in how they prepared their race cars. And they used it.
France had gradually conceded that his notion of running strictly stock cars was impossible. As NASCAR slowly evolved from half-mile dirt tracks to ever-larger paved tracks and the Big Three automakers engaged in a horsepower war to build faster cars, race speeds increased tremendously, which forced teams to structurally reinforce their cars for safety’s sake.
Race teams discovered quite by accident that if they beefed up suspensions and chassis for safety, the cars had less chassis flex and deformation at speed, which meant they handled better. And if they tinkered with the dimensions of the chassis and body, there were additional incremental performance benefits to be gained.
“It was a lot more of an individual sport a long time ago when it first started,” remembered seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty. “When it first started it was strictly stock cars, then somebody said, ‘Why don’t we put bigger springs in it?’ or bigger shocks or bigger tires, whatever it was. Then somebody said, ‘You know, if we cut this window here, cut this fender.’ There were no templates, so we’d just do it. Make the cars longer, shorter, narrower, higher, sideways, whatever it was. We used to run with no spoilers, so that was something that they [NASCAR] didn’t have to check. They didn’t have any templates. They checked the weight of the car and the height of the car and that was about it. Used to be we come down here, in an hour you used to do inspections. If you wasn’t just really, really cheating bad you were OK.”
 “Inspections were very simple,” added reporter Bob Moore of the Charlotte Observer. “They would look at the body. There was no such thing as a template. The engine size was checked for cubic inches. The body was looked at, so your fenders weren't too low in this part or that part. But again it was all visual, eyeballing it. There was a stick that was run under the car to make sure you weren't too low. There was a certain height you had to be, and there was a measurement for that. It was pretty basic. There was no science to it, but most of the inspectors had a fair amount of mechanical knowledge, so if a spring was wrong or a carburetor was offset or whatever, you’d have to fix it.
“In the ’50s and early ’60s, the whole idea was there was a lot less written down. There was a lot more gray area then than there is now. And the whole ability of a crew chief, or a mechanic—because in the ’50s and early ’60s, there was no such thing as a crew chief—was, how far in the gray area can you go to outrun your opponent?” Moore said. “Even in the early ’60s, when Norris Friel was NASCAR’s technical director, he'd say, ‘OK these are the things that you have to do, these are the things we're going to check. Now we know you may go beyond this area, so watch it. We may even let you go beyond the area, but if you get too far or too big an advantage, we're going to take it away.’”
The atmosphere, while competitive certainly, was far more collegial and less cutthroat. Creativity was a staple of the stock-car racing experience. 
“Part of the enjoyment was, how far can people go? How innovative can you get? There's always been people caught cheating. In some cases you get more than a slap on the wrist. But a lot of times, it’s just a slap on the wrist,” said Moore. “As long as you didn't go too far, you got away with it. You just kind of turned your backs. But if the guy you’re competing against thinks you're getting away with too much, he'll go to the officials and say, ‘This guy is half a second faster than everybody. There's got to be a reason why.’” 
Petty advocated a philosophy he called “cheat neat,” which meant trick up your car, but not so blatantly as to draw the ire of NASCAR officials. “The big deal was cheat neat, you know what I mean?” Petty said. “Or cheat on 15 things and do two or three things that’s very obvious. NASCAR’d catch them, and they was happy as June bugs. You got through with what you wanted to get through with.”
Petty was one of several masters of experimentation in the 1960s, along with fellow NASCAR legends like Leonard Wood, Smokey Yunick, and Junior Johnson. And experimentation was the keyword of the day. Making stock cars go fast in those days was much more of a hit-or-miss process and much less scientific than it is today.
There were no computers or digital equipment to test with. When drivers arrived at Daytona for the first time in February 1959, for example, they were shocked to learn that cars ran around the mammoth 2.5-mile track faster together than they did alone. And no wonder the racers were surprised: They were used to banging fenders on half-mile dirt tracks at 60 mph, not running 140 mph around a superspeedway. They’d never been exposed to drafting or how to use it to their advantage.
But they figured it out quickly. “When we started running Daytona, that was the beginning of really trying to streamline for wind resistance,” said former owner/driver Cotton Owens. “We didn't know anything when we went to Daytona in 1959. No one knew you could go out there and draft faster with two cars than with one until we actually did it in the race. I set fast qualifying time at 143 miles an hour, but that was absolutely a stock automobile, with a stock engine. Even at that speed, my car would actually raise the front wheels off the ground going in the corners. We didn't know how to keep it down. Of course, we learned. Dropping the front end down, raising the rear end. Went back in 1960, we were already dropping the front ends on them. Just learned from trying it. Somebody showed up with a car all propped up in the rear and ran fast, and it was on then. Everybody copied it.”
And they tried other tricks as well. “Everybody was doing different things,” recalled driver David Pearson, Richard Petty’s main rival. “I remember the Pettys came to Daytona in 1960 or ’61 and Lee had a car with a vinyl top on it. Looked like a golf ball. They said a golf ball will go through the air good, so that should. Even back then people were trying different things with aerodynamics. You didn’t know as much then because they were just starting superspeedways. I heard all my life that the lighter a car is the better it is, and naturally the lower it is the better the air will go over it. If air went under the car, it would pick it up. At places like Daytona when we first started there, we’d find out that the car would be tight coming off the corner. What it was doing was picking the front end up with air getting under it. So they started lowering the front end. It was a lot of experimenting, seeing what would work, learning about it.”
“In February 1960, I went to Daytona. I’d go down the backstretch in my ’60 Pontiac and spin the wheels,” said Jack Smith. “I told the mechanics, and they said the car wasn’t streamlined enough, that all I was doing was running up against a wall and pushing the wall. Then two years later Ford Motor Company realized they could not run their cars through the air. Ford hired [chassis builder] Banjo Matthews. Banjo took the car and cut the floor pan out of it, lowered the car about four inches, changed the contour of the windshield. Then they found out that Ford would run. The word got out quick, and pretty soon Banjo had orders to build more race cars than he could do. He was the first one I ever knew that cut down or streamlined the cars. This was ’62 or ’63 at Daytona.” 
Some of the teams had particularly inspired ways to get the noses of the cars down, which was vital for success at Daytona, as well as other new tracks that were built in the 1960s at Charlotte, Atlanta, Michigan and Rockingham, high-speed facilities that were inexorably replacing the old, slow dirt tracks.
“Joe Gazaway, [a NASCAR inspector and brother of chief inspector Bill Gazaway] came over once when we were down at Daytona in the mid-‘60s. I think we were getting ready to qualify,” said Bud Moore. “The Wood brothers had their car there. They had put the tarp over it. Leonard had some turnbuckles under the hood. He’d get under there and pull those turnbuckles and pull the front end closer to the ground and make it run faster. Joe happened to see his feet sticking out from under there. He picked the tarp up and smiled. He said, ‘Lenny, what do you think you’re doing?’ That was the biggest laugh.”
“In 1962 or ’63 you began realizing that dropping the top of the grille a little bit lowered everything on the front end,” recalled Wood. “All that stuff was figured out pretty early. Ford used to have a stack of shims under the radiator cradle, about an inch or so. It was really easy to take that stack of shims out and drop the nose an inch. It didn't change much. There wasn't a whole lot of that drooping the nose anyway. If you drooped it too much, you could visually tell it.”
“Leonard made a lot of stuff with his hands,” said Pearson. “He’d take the parking light areas and bend them in a little, just for aerodynamics. I got on to him one time when I was driving for Holman-Moody. His car was behind me, and I told him the front bumper looked like a nail coming at me the way he had it pointed right in the center. They would do things like that. Anything to get the air to flow a little better.”
The Chrysler contingent, led by the Pettys and Owens, had their own tricks, unique to the torsion-bar front suspension that Dodges and Plymouths used. “Once it became obvious that getting the car low was a good thing at Daytona, people started working on it. They dropped the sheet metal down on the nose, lowering it any way they could and still get by,” said Owens. “On the Chryslers, on the lower control arm, you had an adjusting screw. It went up into another arm that held the car up through the torsion bar. We had some [wooden spacers] that would bust when you went in the corner and would automatically drop the front end a full inch. Then when we couldn't get away with that we started machining the bolts and putting little Allen screws in them to let them fall down so far. On the rear they had an anchor back there. We'd slot those bolts to where it could come down so far just from the pressure of the car being on the track. It would automatically lower. It would hold them up long enough to get through inspection. You could just about jump up and down on the front end yourself, and it would automatically come down. The first little bump it got on the track would lower it. It would mean the difference of an inch or an inch and a half, and at Daytona that was a second or a second and a half on the track.”
Owens also borrowed a popular trick from drag racers of the day, swapping the heavy sheet-metal fenders and hoods for lightweight aluminum, which also helped handling. “We got away with that for a little bit,” he admitted. “Then the first wreck where it was actually seen that it was used, they [NASCAR] outlawed it. It was better because it was lighter. You could take all the sheet metal off the front end and put aluminum up there. You couldn't tell the difference in it, from aluminum to sheet metal. You painted it just like it was sheet metal. Front fenders, hood, bumpers. We were always busting the right front tire. So we got a lot of weight off it. That's where it really helped. It put more weight to the rear of the car.”
“Everybody was going wide open trying to change aerodynamics,” agreed Junior Johnson. “That simply came about because they had found about all the horsepower they could find. They had to go somewhere else. The easiest horsepower you ever found in your life is in the body.”
On the smaller tracks, fertile minds were also at work in the early 1960s. “Rex White ran short tracks with his car all lowered to where it was only about two inches off the ground on the left side and about six or seven inches on the right side,” said Owens. “Everybody saw him get around those tracks real good, so they started copying it. That brought on what we called the idiot stick. NASCAR used that to measure ground clearance under the car and wouldn't let you get any lower than that stick. They slid it underneath the car. That's how they measured them for height until, I guess, the ’70s, when they started measuring it from the roof.”
“Anybody could fudge the rules, but what you wanted to do was come up with something that was in the limits but was very beneficial to you,” said car owner Leonard Wood of how the teams worked in the 1960s. “Come up with something that nobody else has even though it's legal. Then it depends on how big a secret you wanted to keep. You didn't tell anybody anything. If somebody let you know something, you might help them. You'd tell him enough to pacify him but not everything that made it go fast. And that's what he'd do to you. If you were running a Ford and so did Bud [Moore] and Junior [Johnson], each one wants to look good. You weren't out there to make Bud or Junior look good. They were your competitors, too. You wanted to beat them as bad as anybody. You could share a little of this or that, but you never told him how to really make it go.”

... to be continued.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cheating, From The Beginning

Editor’s Note: In 1999, I began work on a book called “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Racers Do In Pursuit Of Speed.” 
It was published by David Bull Publishing ( in 2002, and revised in 2005. I had a tremendous amount of fun with the book and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post a few chapters. I hope you enjoy reading these.
The following text is as it appeared in the original book. If you are so inclined, you can follow this blog and receive automatic updates. But enough of me. Now, here’s the text:

“If you really look at it, in the first race, they disqualified the first winner. It started right off the bat. Someone had an idea: “Hey, I can get an edge with this.” That still continues today.” —Dick Thompson
William Henry Getty France had plenty of reasons to smile on the morning of June 19, 1949. His fledgling National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing was about to host the very first race in its new “Strictly Stock” series, which France predicted would capture the imagination of race fans hungry for action in post–World War II America.
The first NASCAR Strictly Stock race was a key victory for the former Washington, D.C., gas station mechanic that everyone in the loose-knit racing fraternity knew as “Big Bill.” The crowd gathered at the dusty three-quarter-mile Charlotte Speedway proved beyond a doubt that fans were interested in watching honest-to-God stock cars race: Hudsons and Kaisers and Lincolns and Fords that regular folks drove, not the fancy open-wheelers at Indianapolis or the bastardized “Modifieds” that looked like they’d been wrecked and rebuilt even before the race started.
And the cars literally were stock cars. There were no tube frames or aerodynamic sheet metal, no exotic racing fuel or slick, high-grip tires. The cars raced at Charlotte were vehicles that drivers had purchased at their local Lincoln or Ford or Hudson dealership and raced as they were, with only the most rudimentary safety modifications. Unlike today, when race cars are rolling sponsor billboards, the first Strictly Stock cars carried crude, hand-painted numbers and the driver’s name and little else. In the few rare cases where cars had sponsors, the sponsor was usually a gas station or a car dealership in the driver’s hometown. There were no uniforms or million-dollar transporters back then, either. For the most part, drivers wore T-shirts and blue jeans and were regular guys out to have some fun on a Sunday afternoon.
 “When they said Strictly Stock, that wasn’t just the name of the division, that was the rule as well,” said historian Bob Latford, who began working at stock-car races in 1946 and later served as public relations director for Charlotte and Atlanta Motor Speedways. “The only thing you could do was beef up the right-front hub, because all the tracks were dirt then and the wheels took a lot of abuse, bouncing around. The tracks were not well manicured. The wheels, right fronts especially, were subject to breaking. And they let  ’em do a little there. That was all you could do. Engines had to be essentially stock. Most of the cars still had their headlights in  ’em. They taped over those. Driver's doors, they took a leather belt, a dog collar, something like that, and strapped the door shut. For seat belts, some of  ’em just used a piece of rope to tie themselves in.” Strictly stock it was.
And that was precisely what the fans wanted to see, as witnessed by the Charlotte turnout. The number of people attending that first Strictly Stock race, like much of NASCAR's history, is shrouded in controversy and myth. The announced attendance was 23,000, though some estimates placed it as low as 13,000 people. Still, attracting even 13,000 people was a huge triumph, especially at a time when racing was in its infancy and Charlotte was smack in the middle of nowhere.
Just as important to France, the first Strictly Stock race  was proof that he had established a leadership position in the war for the heart and soul of racing in the Southeast. Now he was ready to turn his attention to promoting the battles on the track.
For most of the 1930s and 1940s, automobile racing had been chaotic and disorganized at best and outright criminal at worst. Dozens of sanctioning bodies had come and gone, each of which seemed to carry some tortured-sounding acronym like USCRA or NARL or, worst of all, SCARS.
In fact, one of France’s earliest rivals was O. Bruton Smith, who grew up poor in rural North Carolina but would go on to form an empire of automobile dealerships and then a host of racetracks. Smith's National Stock Car Racing Association, or NSCRA, was one of France's competitors, though not for long.
The many acronym-bearing sanctioning bodies were just as confusing to race fans then as the plethora of dot-coms in the late 1990s. Nobody knew who the real stars were, nor what constituted a true championship series or a national champion driver. France knew that by organizing the racing community, he could end the confusion and put his rivals out of business. That’s why he convened a meeting of 22 men on December 14, 1947, in the Ebony Room of the Streamline Motel in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The men, described in a 1998 interview by attendee Sam Packard as a mixture of “Yankees, Southerners, and bootleggers,” sought to organize and better the sport for the interests of all involved. Promoters would be held accountable for race purses, and NASCAR would come up with rules for competitors and enforce them.
“We are all interested in one thing,” France told the group. “That is improving present conditions. The answer lies in our group here today to do it.” And so they did. Legendary mechanic Red Vogt was credited with coming up with NASCAR as the group’s name, and well-known racer E. G. “Cannonball” Baker was named the first commissioner. Big Bill France, however, was the real center of power for the organization. It would need it.
Shady dealings were commonplace in racing. Local race promoters often would fail to deliver on promised prize money to the drivers. It was not unusual to see post-race events end in fisticuffs or much worse.
And many of the drivers weren’t any better. While today cities like Charlotte and Atlanta and regions like Upstate South Carolina are testaments to the economic prosperity and boom times that Sun Belt chambers of commerce love to tout, half a century ago the Southeastern United States was still trying to recover from the ruinous effects of losing the Civil War. Put bluntly, the Southeast at that time was dirt poor in most places. Economic options were few: farming, usually tobacco or cotton, or working in the mills for little more than a subsistence wage.
Of course, there was one other option, and many of the South’s best and brightest pursued it with ferocious abandon: moonshining. A lot more money was to be made selling corn liquor cooked in a back-yard still than there was toiling away trying to raise crops or busting your ass in the mills.
Not that bottling and selling moonshine was without its hazards, mind you. Federal agents from what is now known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms hunted for the stills and the men and women who ran them. Getting caught meant going to jail and going to jail meant your family had no source of income.
Out of necessity, moonshine runners learned to hop up their cars and drive them on the ragged edge. Their livelihood—indeed their very survival—depended on their ability to outwit and outdrive the dreaded federal agents known as “revenuers.” 
 “It was a game of honor,” said Latford. “Most of the revenuers knew who the bootleggers were. It was a matter of pride to try and catch  ’em. And an equal matter of pride to try and outrun  ’em. And a lot of it was argument between bootleggers: ‘My hauler will outrun your hauler.’ And they’d get together and get a grader or a bulldozer or tractor to cut out a little circle in a corn field or a tobacco field or a cotton field and go out there on weekends and race and bet with each other, sometimes for pretty good money.”
The smartest of the ’shine runners would take tame, stock-appearing Ford coupes and replace the underpowered “flathead” motors under the hood with high-compression, overhead-valve Cadillac engines, the most powerful of the day. Then they would beef up the chassis with stiff springs so that it wouldn't sag under the load of a couple hundred gallons of corn liquor. “You didn't want to draw attention to it going down the road, but you wanted the ability to get away if they came after you,” Latford said. “And you have to remember, they were running a lot heavier because of the liquid they were carrying than the pursuers were.”
What the moonshine runners wanted was a car that looked completely stock to the untrained eye, but was the fastest car in the state in the wee hours of the morning. And what the feds lived for was catching these guys and running them down. It was exactly the kind of war of minds that crew chiefs and NASCAR inspectors would play out again and again in later eras.
And the moonshine runners were very, very good at what they did. Brothers Tim, Bob, and Fontello “Fonty” Flock from North Georgia were three well-known whiskey haulers of the late 1940s. And a guy from Wilkes County, North Carolina,  named Junior Johnson would later make a name for himself, too.
France knew all about the whiskey running and the tricked-up cars and the wild men who drove them. And he set about organizing and controlling them. While NASCAR would sanction 52 races in 1948, its first full year in operation, the Strictly Stock division, which would eventually evolve into the Winston Cup Series over the next quarter-century, wouldn’t get its start until Charlotte in June 1949. But when it did, it launched with a bang.
 “Stock-car racing has boomed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and I feel that we are in for another big year,” France said in 1948. But even Big Bill didn’t know how big. The first Strictly Stock race in Charlotte would give him a pretty good indication. And it would also give NASCAR its first controversy and the first of many unsuccessful challenges to France’s authority.
• • • 
In truth, nobody knew exactly what to expect at the first Strictly Stock race, and it showed. Parking and traffic were nightmares, just as they typically are at modern-day Winston Cup races. The concession stands sold out of food and drink.
 “There were fans here at 6 a.m. that day,” said David Allison, the son of track owner Carl Allison, in a 1998 interview with NASCAR Winston Cup Scene correspondent Mike Hembree. “People were trying to get in everywhere. We had people climbing trees to see. Daddy would crank up a chain saw and go over there. He wouldn’t actually cut the trees down, but they would come out of them anyway. They never dreamed that many people would come to the first race.” But they did, for one reason: They wanted to see their local heroes race stock cars, the very same kinds they drove.
And of course, the whole point of France’s Strictly Stock series was just as the name implies: Cars were to be raced exactly as they had come off the showroom floor. The only exception was that racers were allowed to put a steel plate between the front wheels and brake drums to keep the wheels from stripping their studs and lug nuts and coming off the cars. That was it. Everything else had to be stock.
And that’s how most of them raced on that hot, dusty day in Charlotte. There was Lee Petty from up near Greensboro in the northern part of the state, who had come down in an enormous and brand-new Buick Roadmaster sedan, which he would roll over and destroy in the race.
Buck Baker drove a Kaiser at Charlotte, and Bob Flock raced in a Hudson, while brother Tim somehow managed to borrow a brand-new Oldsmobile 88 with less than 1,000 miles on it from newlyweds Buddy and Betty Elliott of Hickory, North Carolina.
At the end of 200 laps, there was a lot of torn up machinery and dashed hopes. Crossing the finish line first was Glenn Dunnaway of Gastonia, North Carolina, about 25 miles southwest of Charlotte. Dunnaway, who had come to the race without a car to compete in, had hooked up with bootlegger Hubert Westmoreland, who installed him behind the wheel of his 1947 Ford coupe. His margin of victory was three laps.
But before Dunnaway could claim the $2,000 first-prize check, a small fortune in those days, NASCAR chief technical inspector Al Crisler disqualified him for having illegal “bootlegger springs” on the rear of the Westmoreland-owned Ford. The heavy-duty leaf springs helped distribute the weight better, which in turn improved handling. “They basically flip-flopped the springs and beefed up the rear end of the car. It was an old bootlegger trick, of course,” said Latford. “A lot of the guys building the cars had built a lot of bootlegger cars.”
Not everyone felt that Dunnaway should have been disqualified. “I think that was the worst injustice that I ever saw NASCAR do anybody,” veteran racer Jack Smith said in his final interview, given just weeks before he died of heart failure at age 65 in October 2001. “The night before the race they had tripped that car with whiskey on it. It had two pieces welded on the back of the frame so the axle would go down to there [limiting suspension travel and how low the car would drop with a load of moonshine]. If anything, it would have had to hurt him.” But Crisler deemed it illegal, and Big Bill France agreed.
Dunnaway’s disqualification turned the race win over to Jim Roper, who had driven nonstop all the way from Halstead, Kansas, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, in a 1948 Lincoln. He had seen the race promoted in the syndicated comic strip “Smilin’ Jack.” 
Roper’s engine was torn down in post-race inspection, and he had to get a replacement motor from nearby Mecklenburg Motors in order to drive the race-winning car back to Kansas.
Westmoreland, meanwhile, was incensed. He filed suit against NASCAR in Mecklenburg County Court, in North Carolina, asking for $5,000 in damages and saying he and Dunnaway were unfairly robbed of the victory. But the suit was subsequently thrown out and actually worked to France's advantage, because as Latford put it, a court of law decided “that he [France] could make and administer the rules for the organization.” This was a crucial victory, given the fledgling nature of the sanctioning body and the outlaw mindset of many of its participants.
The scenario would be repeated often over NASCAR’s illustrious history: A huge crowd witnessed a race steeped in controversy that would be talked about for days to come. A competitor would be caught cheating and be punished, and NASCAR’s authority would be challenged, unsuccessfully. It's a theme that would be repeated over and over again as stock-car racing grew. Such twists and turns and rumors and innuendo would help fuel the growth of the sport over the next half century and beyond.
 “If you really look at it, in the first race, they disqualified the first winner,” said Dick Thompson, the longtime public relations director for Martinsville Speedway. “It started right off the bat. Someone had an idea: ‘Hey, I can get an edge with this.’ That still continues today.”
 “There's always been people caught cheating,” agreed Bob Moore, a veteran motorsports journalist who began covering stock-car racing for the Charlotte Observer in 1962. “A lot of times, the punishment was just a slap on the wrist. In some cases, like Dunnaway's, you get more than a slap on the wrist.”
And the man slapping the wrists would only reinforce his authority in the 1950s, while those wanting to flout the law were just starting to get warmed up. After just one season, NASCAR founder Bill France changed the name of his “Strictly Stock” series to Grand National, a name purportedly lifted from an English horseracing event to make the series seem a little classier. But whatever the name, stock-car racing was still a pretty crude sport to say the least, and its first major stab at the big time proved as controversial as the first Strictly Stock race did.
When Darlington Raceway opened in 1950, it was billed as the sport’s first superspeedway, an egg-shaped track 1.3 miles long and designed for high speeds, at least by the standards of the day. At a time when most races were run on small, grimy dirt tracks, Darlington was viewed as the first truly modern, purpose-built stock-car racing track.
Historians point to the track’s Labor Day weekend opening for the very first Southern 500 as the birth of a new generation of tracks. But those who were there remember it as both rustic and a place where rules were liberally bent and sometimes broken.
Inspections were conducted before qualifying and away from the track, making it laughably easy to sidestep the rules. 
“We hauled the car from Spartanburg [South Carolina], went to the racetrack first and signed in,” recalled “Little” Bud Moore, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who participated in the D-Day invasion in World War II and later won 63 races and three NASCAR championships as a car owner. “Then they took so many cars up there to inspection, then sent another bunch. Inspection was done before there was any practice. We were down there about a week going through inspection and getting all that stuff done before there was anything done at the track.”
“They pulled the heads on the engine. Checked the compression. Checked the engine pretty thorough. Went through it pretty good. It had to be pretty stock. The only thing we were allowed to change on the chassis were the shock absorbers. We used heavy-duty shocks. Had heavy-duty hubs [on the axles].”
According to Bud Moore, it was a far cry from the high-tech scrutiny today’s Winston Cup cars go through. “The inspection station was about two or three miles up the road, north from the racetrack. We drove the car up there. It went through inspection. And you drove it back to the racetrack,” he said. “It was a concrete block building—a farm equipment building. They sold farm equipment. A pretty good-sized place. They moved all that out, and that’s where they did the inspections. They didn’t have any place in the infield of the track. No garage. No buildings. Didn’t even have too good a rest room as far as that goes.”
“They didn’t have a man to follow you over there,” remembered Jack Smith, who won 21 NASCAR races in a driving career that spanned the years from 1949 to 1964. “There were people that left that garage [after inspection] and drove the car on the highway and it didn’t run good and they would stop and put another engine in it and go to the racetrack.”
Although some racers took liberties with their engines, the winner figured out that the real secret to going fast was in the tires. “Johnny Mantz won the race in a Plymouth. We were in a Mercury,” Bud Moore said. “Mantz won on Indy-type tires, Ward Riversides. Everybody else was running street-type tires. Sunday morning just before the race started they come out and put those tires on Mantz’s car. He ran the whole race and never changed tires. I changed so many tires with a four-way lug wrench. Red Byron was driving a Cadillac for Red Vogt. They said they used 75 tires. We did go out in the infield and jack people’s cars up and use their wheels and tires. Nobody realized [completing the distance] was going to take that many tires.”
After the race, the second through fifth place finishers, Fireball Roberts, Red Byron, Bill Rexford and Chuck Mahoney, respectively, all protested the legality of Mantz’s car, claiming it carried a bogus camshaft, shocks, and springs. But NASCAR President Bill France refused to have the car torn down after the race, because he was one of the four men who owned it. As if that wasn’t bizarre enough, one of his co-owners was Hubert Westmoreland, the bootlegger and owner of Glenn Dunnaway’s disqualified race-winning car from the first Strictly Stock race a year earlier.
NASCAR tech inspector Henry Underhill asked France to inspect Mantz’s car after the race, but was told he could only look at it if he tore down the other 74 cars in the field first, which he obviously lacked the manpower and time to do. Underhill was so incensed he quit NASCAR shortly thereafter. It was neither the first nor last time that France was accused of manipulating the sport in his favor, and it’s hard to claim that the events of the day were anywhere near fair. But France made the rules and again his will prevailed, no matter how much it angered and disgusted the other racers. France held all the power; the others could only hold their tongues.
Still, some on hand that day learned a thing or two, both about how France ran things and how to race. Mechanic and car owner Smokey Yunick was one of the quick studies.
“In 1955 Smokey went up to Firestone in Akron and wanted to go through the junk pile,” remembered Lowe’s Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler, who previously had been the tire company’s racing representative in 1964. “Firestone always had a pile of tires that had been tried somewhere and didn’t work. Smokey picked out four Indy-car tires that were harder compound, that were being discarded because they just were too hard. That’s what he put on the ’55 Chevrolet that Herb Thomas won the Southern 500 [at Darlington] in. Went 500 miles without a tire change. Was that cheating? No, it wasn’t at the time, because the NASCAR tire rule was very loose.”
Smith, meanwhile, had discovered some tire tricks of his own in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “People found out they could take tires, put them out in the sun, put them in an oven, soften the tires and put them on the left side or get a tire recapping company to do it,” he said. “At the Peach Bowl speedway in Atlanta, I found out that Jones Tire Company was a recapping company. I could get him to recap the tires for the left side and put [on] a certain compound and heat it to a certain temperature. It was just like day-and-night difference in how it handled. People always accused me of cheating on the motors. We didn’t have to cheat on the motors. All we had to do was get the car to handling. Any way you could get tires heated to a certain temperature and then bring them out and cool them off, that made a difference. You could even use a kitchen-type oven.”
Smith also saw firsthand how his competitors would try to get a good look at what he was doing. “Lee Petty. You could be sitting down beside your car. Here he’d come and lay down and start talking to you,” Smith said. “And he’d be looking up under that car all the time he was talking to you. If you wrecked or something, he was going to come to see how bad it was. It wasn’t that he was worried about you. He was looking for things on your car.”
Others were trying similarly crude experiments in other areas of their cars, trying to make them go faster. Junior Johnson said he got his first taste of rudimentary aerodynamic engineering in the early 1950s with his whiskey haulers.
“I think it came from back when I was fooling with moonshine,” he said of his eventual mastery of aerodynamics. “I messed around with cars, took the windshield wipers off. We used to bet money and see who had the fastest car on the highway. I could do a lot of stuff and pick up 15 to 20 miles per hour. You know a lot of cars had a big old hole where the headlights were? I'd flesh that out and stop it off. Just taking the wipers off would give you four or five miles per hour. Various things like that. Taking mirrors off. Once you pick up on that, you start seeing what makes a car not aerodynamic. Any time you help the aerodynamics of the car, you help the handling.”
Humpy Wheeler, meanwhile, was looking for some help of his own in unlikely places, as he briefly and ultimately unsuccessfully pursued a driving career in the hardscrabble Southeast in the early 1950s. What he discovered was, to say the least, unorthodox.
“It seemed like the higher you got in racing the more sophisticated the cheating became. Years ago when I was trying to race—I was a teenager—I took this old Ford flathead down to Cowpens [South Carolina] Speedway, which on Friday night was hallowed ground in the Carolinas,” Wheeler recalled. “It was what we called outlaw racing then. This was in the ’50s. The best flathead racers in the South seemed like they would end up at Cowpens Speedway on Saturday night. The equipment was fairly simple. We all ran Mercury block engines. You were only allowed one Stromberg carburetor with one barrel. So everybody was always trying to monkey with that carburetor, but there wasn’t much to it. 
“There was one guy down there, though, his name was Black Cat, and he ran an appliance-white ’34 Ford. He seemed to get more out of carburetors than anybody. So I wanted to buy a carburetor from this guy. He said, ‘Let’s go over to my house.’ He didn’t live far from the track. We went over to his house. It was a trailer. We went in there, and he went to the refrigerator and opened the door. It was full of Stromberg carburetors. They were cold. I paid the five extra dollars for one and put it on my car. And it ran better. What did he do to those carburetors? I don’t know. He was very serious about the refrigerator, though.”
Wheeler saw his share of fuel additives of questionable legality, potions designed to boost horsepower through more efficient combustion, a staple trick of cheaters throughout history. “There was a guy named Sweeney Prosser who sold something called ‘Sweeney Prosser’s Nitro X.’ He sold it in five-gallon cans. It was a white can, but he had great graphics on the front. This was back in the ’50s when graphics hadn’t really come into racing big time,” Wheeler said. “As soon as you saw that can, you had to buy it. It worked very well. Most people were running Amoco white gas then. What did he have in that fuel? Whatever he had, no one ever figured out. It did make the car run better. You could feel it in the car. When he died, so did the formula and the fuel. I never saw it again.”
Even early in the sport’s history, creativity mattered. And the further along the sport grew, the more creativity became a factor.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Best Damn Garage In Town Burns Down

In remembrance of "The Best Damn Garage In Town" burning down, I thought I'd share this excerpt from my book, "Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Racers Do In Pursuit Of Speed." 

Like all truly great American heroes, Smokey Yunick was someone you couldn’t invent, a man whose accomplishments dwarf even his formidable, larger-than-life mystique. In the annals of NASCAR history, he stands firmly where legend and fact collide, leaving onlookers to judge his impact for themselves.
A war hero who combined the brains of an engineer with a penchant for hard living and bacchanalian excess, Yunick was one of the most outspoken characters in NASCAR’s history. He was by turns brilliant, profane, controversial, outrageous and charming, a man who loved to stir things up and despised authority figures. He was one of the best and most honored mechanics in the history of stock-car racing and a pioneer in creative rules interpretation, a man who, along with Junior Johnson, reigned as an outlaw genius, rebel, and perpetual thorn in Bill France’s side.
“Smokey was the worst or best, I’m not sure what you’d call it,” said Ray Fox, who drove stock cars in the 1950s and was later a car owner and a NASCAR official. “He was always trying to get away with something. I think Smokey had the idea [that] if you could have four things wrong and get one through, that was good.”
In the half century of NASCAR’s existence, Yunick stories have become the sanctioning body’s equivalent of urban legends, wild tales some claim are gospel truth, while others dismiss them as apocryphal. 
In short, he was an American original, someone the likes of whom we’ve not seen before nor will ever again. One hundred years from now, it’s easy to imagine his ghost still walking through the Winston Cup garage, dressed in his trademark flattop Stetson and white overalls bearing a simple logo that reads “Best Damn Garage in Town.”
 * * *
Henry “Smokey” Yunick was born in Tennessee in 1923 and grew up in the outskirts of Philadelphia, where he dropped out of school in the 10th grade to support his mother and sister.
According to NASCAR historian Gene Granger, Yunick took up motorcycle racing in the late 1930s and got into aviation at about the same time. Both racing and flying would prove to be lifelong passions for Yunick. In fact, Yunick’s nickname came from his early racing days, when his motorcycle began spewing smoke and the track announcer forgot his name and simply started calling him “Smokey.”
When World War II broke out, Yunick became a B-17 pilot in the Army Air Corps, a stint that like many parts of his life would combine equal measures of achievement and controversy.
In a 1992 interview for American Racing Classics, Yunick recounted his first misadventure with the armed forces. “I went to the state fair in Memphis while I was stationed at Dyersburg [Tennessee],” he said. “I got drunk and came back for high-altitude formation. While I was up around 30,000 feet my appendix burst, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew I needed to get on the ground in a hurry. After [the co-pilot] tried to land it two or three times and he couldn’t, I came to long enough to get it on the ground. If I hadn’t, we would all have been dead.”
He recovered and became a highly decorated pilot, flying 52 bombing missions in Africa, Europe, Indochina, Burma, the Philippines, and Okinawa. He was wounded once and shot down over Poland on another occasion.
“I was in every World War II battle from Africa to Japan, every single one,” Yunick said, though he conceded that maybe he wasn’t quite suited to military life. “I was kind of a bad boy. I did about the same there as I did in NASCAR.”
And a bad boy he was once he got back home from the war. Frustrated by the cold weather during a brief stint as a mechanic in southern New Jersey, Yunick hooked up his house trailer to his car and headed for warmer weather, following a remarkably similar path to NASCAR founder Bill France.
Yunick, like France, ended up in Daytona Beach, Florida, where each opened his own business: France a gas station and Yunick a repair shop known as “The Best Damn Garage in Town.” Rivals in the auto-repair business, the men would soon butt heads in the racing world as well. It was a turbulent era and a time when Florida was known more as a rural frontier than a tourist mecca.
“If in 1947, I killed a guy in Daytona, unless he had five eyewitnesses, they wouldn't have bothered me,” said Yunick, whose father-in-law was a district attorney in the area for a time. “I would have never even been arrested, ’cause I was wired in politically. They liked racers, and anything they could do for you they would. 
“If a cop caught me in Georgia speeding and I could get away from him, I would never pay the damn speeding ticket and you could send all the telegrams and everything you want to Florida to get me extradited, and they'd just laugh about it, tear it up, and throw it away.”
The heady days of the late 1940s and 1950s weren’t quite as all-American as some historians would have you believe. According to Yunick, the racers raced hard and lived harder, partying with groupies he called “fence bunnies.”
“As a rule, fence bunnies had a car, and they would circle our hotel like Indians circling a wagon train," Yunick said in an interview with reporter Juliet Macur of the Orlando Sentinel. “It wasn't uncommon for 10 or 15 couples to have sex in one room. If AIDS was around back then, we'd all be dead right now. … I'm not proud of what I did back then, but if a woman looked good, we didn't really abide by the Ten Commandments.”
On the track, Yunick was as brilliant as he was wild off it. With Yunick preparing the cars, Herb Thomas won NASCAR Grand National (now Winston Cup) championships in 1951 and 1953, in addition to finishing runner-up twice. With Yunick as his mechanic and car builder, Thomas won 39 races over four years.
General Motors hired Yunick away in 1955 to help develop the legendary Chevrolet small-block V-8, an engine still in production today, albeit in a much modified form.
In the mid-1950s, Yunick began competing as an owner/crew chief in a limited schedule of NASCAR Grand National races. His most notable success came at Daytona, where he won four of the first eight major stock-car races at the famed speedway after it opened in February 1959. Fireball Roberts was the winning driver for three of those four races, including the 1962 Daytona 500. Yunick also dabbled successfully in open-wheel racing, winning the Indy 500 in 1960, when he served as Jim Rathmann’s mechanic.
But Yunick’s legend was built around his creative rules interpretation. He didn’t just stretch the rule book, he bent it, broke it, and threw it out the window. And not only did he not like France, he had no use for NASCAR’s chief technical inspectors, Norris Friel, Bill Gazaway, or Dick Beaty.
“Gazaway and his brother ran the inspections. The very best thing you could say for the both of them was they were first-class gas station attendants. I mean you're stretching it there,” Yunick said. “Bill Gazaway was the chief inspector. If he had any claim to fame of any kind, it's that he was the finest reader of comic books there was in the United States. He had every issue of Superman and Spiderman and all that. To get in good with him, we used to go over there and get the latest comic books and throw them on his desk. He didn't know his ass from a hole in the ground.
“What was Friel's claim to fame? The best Model T mechanic in Washington, D.C. What was Dick Beaty's claim to fame? Dick Beaty was the best go-fer and odd-job guy that Eastern Airlines ever had in Charlotte. Not hardly a doctor in thermodynamics or anything, you know what I'm saying,” said Yunick. “The people they chose to be inspectors were not qualified. And nobody who was qualified would have took the job because it didn't pay enough.”
Yunick was equally blunt about how he stretched the rules. In fact, 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,” Yunick said.
“And that's the only way you could get away with it. But what happened is it about goddamn killed me working day and night. I had to work on it when the other guys went home. Well, they didn't go home until one or two in the morning. Then I would start on building the stuff to supercharge the engines.
“The only reason the world never knew about it was I decided to stop doing it. I figured I'd used up all the good luck I had and got by with it for a couple of years, and figured, well, sooner or later somebody's going to figure out what happened. So I abandoned it before I ever got caught,” he said. “I made it to run off the flywheel and pressure plate. It's easy to make the pressure plate the compressor wheel, and it was inside a housing. It was easy to close it, and with urethane it was easy to get it down to a minimum size and so on. I'm not going to describe the whole thing to you, but it really was no big deal. It was something I thought about for years and years.”
It’s hard to imagine that Yunick actually ran this device without detection for a period of years. The purpose of a supercharger is to dramatically compress the flow of air through an engine, thereby sharply boosting horsepower. 
Even hidden in a bellhousing and run off a flywheel, the supercharger would have to have some way to direct air flow through the engine’s intake system, something that surely should have been detectable to inspectors or, more likely, other competitors.
On the other hand, Yunick was so creative with other parts of the car that it’s impossible to completely dismiss the story. His fellow competitors, for example, said Yunick was one of the first mechanics to really understand the relationship between the shape of a car’s body and the effects of wind resistance at high speed.
Aerodynamics, in fact, were probably his true to claim to fame on the scofflaw front. “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 his contemporary 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, the man who trails only Richard Petty in career NASCAR victories. “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.” 
“You’d have to say Smokey Yunick was the best at the pre-1960 period. A lot of his was more innovation maybe than cheating. He knew where the gaps in the rules were, particularly as they related to engines,” said Humpy Wheeler. “People used to say that Smokey couldn’t make a car handle. Well, he could. The reason he got the handling rap was that his cars were going in the corners so much faster than everybody else. And it took a certain type of driver to drive for him because it was pretty intimidating. You couldn’t come in and say, ‘I don’t have enough power.’”
 “Some of the great [aerodynamic] innovations in those regards came from Smokey,” said NASCAR historian Bob Latford. “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].”
Like many of his peers, Yunick took umbrage at the term “cheating” even many years after his retirement.
“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,” said Yunick.
“The cheating thing is just like the law business. It depends on who's in power, the Democrats or the Republicans, and what part of the 19th or 20th or 21st century it is, because the laws are more and more abused the further we go. The lawyers are learning ways to circumvent the rules that we had yesterday. The same thing's happening in races.
“Ninety percent of the so-called cheating that was innovated, it wasn't cheating,” Yunick said, citing as an example 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.”
Still, he remained resolutely unconvinced that innovating can ever be effectively controlled by NASCAR. “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,” said Yunick. “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. 
“The first inspector NASCAR ever had that even had a clue on what was going on is the guy they got now [Gary Nelson]. He's quite knowledgeable and should certainly be capable of doing a good job. But one of the problems is, and it's a very specific problem that will never go away, is that if he had, say four good assistants that are very knowledgeable and so forth, they're up against 100 mechanics factory-educated to like the third level, almost like doctors, you know what I mean?”
In their heydays, Yunick and Gazaway butted heads on many occasions, most notably at the 1968 Daytona 500, when Yunick was purported to have driven his race car away from inspection after NASCAR officials had removed the fuel tank.
The truth of what happened, to this day, remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, if only because Yunick has told and retold the story several different ways. But this much seems certain: Curtis Turner won the pole for the 1967 Daytona 500 in one of Yunick’s Chevrolets, at a time when General Motors was not officially in racing, but rivals Ford and Chrysler were.
The pole victory for the unsponsored Chevrolet infuriated Ford and Chrysler, which at the time were pouring millions of dollars into racing, while GM’s factory efforts had been curtailed.
“Smokey had been out of NASCAR for some period of time. He was primarily at Indianapolis, winning the race in 1960 with Jim Rathmann. He came back to Daytona in 1967,” recalled Wheeler, who was there when it happened. “This was at the absolute height of the Ford-Chrysler factory wars, also between Firestone and Goodyear. In ’65 and ’66, Ford and Chrysler had boycotted, each one year. In ’67 at Daytona they all were back. Chrysler had the mighty hemi, Ford had the 427 engine that was so good. Of course, there were no Chevrolets, hadn’t been for some time, at least none of consequence on the big tracks. Smokey shows up with a ’67 Chevrolet Chevelle with Curtis Turner driving. It was two renegades coming into Daytona, neither could care less about what anybody thought of them. All of a sudden, the first time I saw the car, I thought, the car is awful small. The Chevelle, an intermediate-sized production car, was smaller than the full-size Ford Galaxie and the Dodges and Plymouths that were running. But Smokey’s car didn’t look like it was as big as the Chevelles I’d seen.
“In practice it didn’t really do much. Here comes pole day, and he wins the pole. This would be like a Peugeot coming in and winning the pole today in a stock-car race. It was such a shock. It was so embarrassing to the factory teams. I have never seen longer faces in my life at a racetrack, other than when somebody’s killed, than at Daytona that day. NASCAR scrambled all around trying to find out who did what to whom, how did that damn thing get on the pole? It comes time for the qualifying races. Curtis on the pole and they drop the flag. He developed a mysterious smoke coming out of the car on the first lap. I guess Smokey said it was a blown engine or a leaky oil line. I suspect that he didn’t want to show his hand. He knew that NASCAR was after him big time. The car didn’t win the race, but probably in the history of stock-car racing there was never a bigger upset than what happened that day.” 
Ironically, because of rampant aerodynamic massaging by teams in 1965 and 1966, NASCAR brought templates to Daytona for the first time in 1967. These ran lengthwise from the car’s hood to trunk and fit over the roof to make sure the trunk/roof/hood line was identical to production models. 
Yunick found an obvious loophole: NASCAR didn’t measure how wide the car was, so he narrowed it. A narrower car  pushes less air and, all other things being equal, it will be faster than a wider car.
“What did Smokey do with the car? He just made a small Chevelle out of it and took advantage of something nobody paid much attention to in those days, and that was aerodynamics,’ said Wheeler. “It was less to move through the air. He had the fabulous ability to get more horsepower out of an engine than anybody else on Earth could. So the combination was earth shattering. As a matter of fact, that car was held in such high esteem as the ultimate cheater that it was sold for way up in the six figures at a collector car auction in Phoenix a couple of years ago. Somehow or other it miraculously showed up. Smokey verified to me that that was the Daytona car. It would be interesting to get that car and find out what size it really was.”
Under pressure from France, Yunick agreed not to run the car for the pole in 1968, but would instead attempt to be the fastest second-round qualifier, which would still earn him prize money from a contingency sponsor. Yunick claims he cut the deal with France, which, in effect, would guarantee  either Ford or Chrysler the pole for the season’s most important race.
But the trouble started when Yunick showed up at tech inspection with his black-and-gold No. 13 Chevrolet Chevelle, which was now driven by Johnny Rutherford.
“That had a rubber fuel cell in it which was the legitimate size. They had it out about four times. It's a deal that had nothing to do with gas tanks. It had to do with Chrysler and Ford Motor Company telling France there wasn't going to be no unsponsored General Motors car sitting on the pole was what it was all about. So how do you want to approach that?” Yunick said at Charlotte in October 2000.
“The real story is a very complex story that had to do with politics and nothing to do with gas tanks. See, the year before that, I was an unsponsored car and it was a GM car. And it came out of nowhere and sat on the pole by about 4 miles per hour, OK? Which, apparently, they took as an embarrassment, Ford and Chrysler. General Motors still hadn't come back in the thing in ’68. And so the deal still went: There won't be a GM car on the pole. That's what happened. There's a lot more to the story. The car never ran. Nobody knows whether it would have sat on the pole or not. And in June, Firestone wanted to do a tire test at Daytona and they hired me to do it. Five days before the tire test, when NASCAR discovered that Firestone was going to use my car for the tire test, they banned it. They said, ‘You can't do no tire test here, either.’ That was it.”
Well, most of it anyway. There was an angry confrontation in tech inspection. 
“We had the gas tank checked, and we were in inspection. They checked me and thought I had a secret gas tank someplace. Then they said, ‘You gotta go back to the chief inspector.’ He had a list of 11 things that had to be fixed before the car could run. Item number one was replace homemade frame with stock frame. Now, you've got an hour and a half left, then you've got 10 more things.
“So, I said, 'Well, you've got about 10 minutes to decide if you're really serious about this thing, because 10 minutes from now, if you don't come over and tell me the car was passed in inspection, I'm leaving.’ They never came over.
“And then when I went to leave, I wanted to drive the car out and I wanted to put gas in it. And the inspector said, ‘You can't move this car, ’cause we're not done inspecting it.’
“I said, ‘Don't make any difference, I'm leaving.’ Well, I wasn't having any luck with him, so I knocked him on his ass, went and got in the car, and let my boys tow me back, and then I decided to go round the track one time with the car. Then I had that big rope on it and I thought, no that won't work, I'm liable to run over that damn thing. So we just took it home. That's all there was to it.”
Except, of course, for the fact that the black-and-gold Chevrolet had a two-inch, 11-foot-long fuel line that held five gallons of gas, a feature that would be outlawed a week later.
“Smokey was a genius in his time. He was as good as anybody was during his time,” said Charlie Gray, a retired engineer who was Ford Motor Company’s program coordinator for stock-car racing from the early 1960s through 1970. “He was a great power in his day. He certainly made his mark, and he deserved every bit of the recognition he got.”
“Smokey was an extremely talented, highly educated mechanic,” agreed car owner Leonard Wood, co-owner of the legendary Wood Brothers racing team. “He used a lot of common sense and was innovative.”
 * * *
But for all his technical brilliance, the fiery Yunick had a hard time coping with the politics of automobile racing and the politics of the automobile manufacturers. And that led to his retirement from NASCAR in 1971.
“The politics were a big part of it. When we got going in the 1950s, [France] in his head wanted to keep the cars absolutely stock, which was totally impossible for safety reasons, not speed reasons. That's how the cheating got started, to keep from getting killed.”
The weakest link in the 1950s stock car was the front-end spindle, which held on the wheel assembly and connected it to the steering and suspension. As speeds began to increase, the g forces and loads on the spindles increased, too. Eventually the spindles would fail, and the result would be wrecks, sometimes with catastrophic results. “He forced us to cheat in the beginning to make heavier spindles,” Yunick said of France’s attempt to keep the cars strictly stock. “The factories at that time, they would make a bigger [spindle] for you.”
Yunick knew that France held all the cards and there was little anyone could do, least of all a renegade car owner who openly voiced his displeasure with NASCAR’s boss.
“If he wanted to disqualify the car, he could. It was his outfit, and nobody made me run in the thing, so if he abused what I thought was his power, I figured, well, it's his outfit, and if I can't handle the heat, I need to go somewhere else,” Yunick explained.
“I ran the Ford Torino Talladega [a limited production model] in 1970 at Daytona, and they forced me to run a Ford that was four inches higher than the other ones. They knew where the cheating was going on and they watched everybody else and they caught everything on mine, and you could see my car was sitting that much higher up in the air. 
“I said, ‘Well, you only get to do that one time.’ And I told them before the race I said, ‘You make me race this way, this'll be the last time I ever race in the South.’
“He [France] said, ‘Ah, you'll be back.’
“I said, ‘If you don't think I'm gone, you count the days till I get back.’ And I said, ‘If I see you first, I'll get on the other side of the street, and if you see me, you get the fuck on the other side of the street. You want to know what time of day it is, it'll cost you 100 bucks. That's the way he left it. When I left, Junior Johnson was the next one that got my place, and they worked his ass off till they run him off. You can only take that so long.”
Yunick never again would compete as a car owner or mechanic at a NASCAR race. Although he frequently showed up at races in the years ahead, he battled bone cancer and a host of other ailments and was absent from the scene for most of the 2000 season, until showing up at Charlotte in October for the UAW-GM Quality 500.
“I was diagnosed with everything but pregnancy,” Yunick said with a raspy laugh as he sat in the infield media center at Charlotte in October 2000. “Finally, about a month ago, I took all the medicine there was and threw it in the trash can, 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 ball game. 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.”
And just as he refused to obey authority in the military or NASCAR, Yunick wasn’t about to take a doctor’s word on how to live. He lived his entire life on his own terms and vowed to finish it the same way. He died May 9, 2001.
“I think he was years ahead of his time in some of the aerodynamic things,” said Barry Dodson. “One of the Chevelles he had is up in Richard Childress's 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.”